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Boston's Emboldened City Council Eyes Reining In Chain Stores

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Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu
Isaiah Thompson

It has been a boisterous year for Boston’s City Council.

Within the last year the City Council has passed significant regulations on, and over the objections of: Big Plastic, passing a ban on flimsy plastic bags; Big Tech, passing sweeping restrictions on Airbnb; and on Big Money, passing rules requiring for the first time that lobbyists of city officials disclose their lobbying.

Now, at least three Council members (and likely several more) are getting ready to take on Big Retail.

On Wednesday, City Councilors Michelle Wu, Kim Janey and Lydia Edwards offered the measure Wednesday, citing the rapid spread of big box and multinational chain stores throughout Boston neighborhoods – sometimes they said driving smaller neighborhood businesses out.

“This type of pressure and this type of commercial gentrification is happening in every single business district in the city,” said Wu, lead sponsor of the measure.

Co-sponsor Kim Janey waxed nostalgic on the Council floor for a local business in her neighborhood of Dudley that went by the wayside.

“I know how important small businesses are to building a sense of community,” Janey said.

“In my neighborhood Dudley Dough which is no longer with us, used to host family game nights."

Meanwhile, in Boston’s traditionally Italian North End – represented by Edwards, the third co-sponsor – the spread of Starbucks has been a source of controversy and hand-wringing.

The proposal put forward on Wednesday doesn't prevent chain stores from opening – or ban any kind of chain store from any particular area.

Instead, it would impose special zoning on any chain store – defined as having 11 of more locations – that requires the proposed location go through a public hearing process before zoning can be approved.

Wu told WGBH News that she and her co-sponsors aren't necessarily against multinational chain franchises moving into neighborhoods - some neighborhoods, Wu pointed out, would love to have a Starbucks. Rather, the measure is meant to force those corporations to be accountable to neighbors and neighboring businesses.

Wu says she expects details of the bill will change as discussions – and, surely, negotiations – ensue.

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