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Should Boston Push Back At Chain Stores — And If So, How?

A few weeks ago, the North End was up in arms over a push to put a Starbucks in one of Boston’s most distinctive neighborhoods.

"Are we planning to be New York City, that big, crumbling ugly city?" Damien DiPaola, the owner of Carmelina's and Vito's, protested at the time. "Take away the charm?"

Ultimately, the developer on that particular project backed off the Starbucks proposal amid intense local opposition, and after Mayor Marty Walsh made his opposition clear. But now, thanks to the Boston City Council, the debate over chain stores proliferating in the city is intensifying.

Last week, Boston City Councilors Michelle Wu, Lydia Edwards, and Kim Janey unveiled a proposal that would make expansion a bit more difficult for chains, which are defined as businesses with eleven or more locations and a standardized aesthetic or array of products. If the zoning change they've suggested becomes reality, options like Starbucks, Whole Foods, Dunkin' Donuts, and Staples would have to get what's called a "conditional-use permit" to operate in the city's business districts, meaning a public zoning hearing and, perhaps, intensified local opposition.

"This is not a prohibition on chain stores within Boston," Wu said. "It's merely adding a recognition of this specific type of business to our zoning code, because we believe it has a different impact."

"Time and time again," Wu added, "we've seen that when our local business owners have built the district, when things are going well, it becomes very attractive for national chains, and when those corporate entities come in they [the local businesses] simply can’t compete head to head."

If the proposal comes to fruition, though, it isn't just national corporate giants that could be affected.

Vince Petryk is the founder and owner of the beloved local ice-cream chain J.P. Licks, which has 14 locations and three more on the way. As he sees it, by expanding, he's realized a vision for his business that was suggested by the late Mayor Tom Menino.

"He turned to me, and he goes, 'I really would love to see a J.P. Licks in every neighborhood in Boston, because you’re good for Boston.' I was kind of touched by that."

Petryk thinks the new city-council proposal is well-intentioned but overzealous. He suggests an exemption for local chains like his, as well as a heightened threshold for what, exactly, constitutes a chain in need of additional regulation.

He also argues that if small, independent businesses are good enough at what they do, competition from cookie-cutter competitors shouldn't be an issue.

"We’ve had chains open up where we already had shops, and they lasted a year or two and went out of business," Petryk said. "Why? Because people in neighborhoods vote with their wallets. No business is going to survive without customers."

But Wu says it’s not quite that simple. In Boston's intensely competitive real-estate market, she said, chains can drive local businesses out before the latter even get a chance to compete.

"When it comes to profit motives, landlords will choose national chains over local businesses 100 percent of the time," Wu said. "And that’s because national businesses come with better profit lines. They come with better financing."

"Even if [landlords], in their heart, want to support a local business — even if residents say, 'We prefer the local business' — from a financial perspective, the smart decision … is to go with that national chain."

In a statement, a spokesperson for Walsh said he welcomes discussion of development issues and is reviewing the changes proposed by Wu and her colleagues.

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