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A Green Alternative marijuana dispensary operates within a shopping mall in Otay Mesa. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s restrictions on the number and location of cannabis dispensaries inhibit the economic vitality of existing commercial areas, and are counterproductive to the fundamental urban design goal to create safe and lively streets. Given economic conditions precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever that these regulations are thoughtfully reviewed and potentially loosened.

Legal retail sale of cannabis is now a multibillion-dollar industry and constitutes a significant part of California’s economy. In San Diego, the city estimates receipts of $17 million in tax revenues in 2021 on projected sales of $200 million of cannabis products.

Yet our city misses the opportunity for other businesses to share the benefits of this sales phenomenon. There is a veil of shame and myth regarding the use of cannabis. Although many San Diegans regard cannabis as no more of a vice than alcohol, a small but vocal group of dissenters appears to subscribe still to the “Reefer Madness” prejudice that it’s for the underclass, misfits and delinquents. Current regulations reflect those biases and mandate that dispensaries locate at least 1,000 feet from “sensitive” areas such as residences, schools, churches, libraries, parks and playgrounds. In addition, no more than four dispensaries are allowed within any single City Council district.

Yet “sensitive” areas are often closely integrated into the fabric of neighborhood commercial areas, so the regulation amounts to little more than de facto segregation as they are forced into marginal areas and away from traditional commercial centers. Customer-facing establishments such as food and beverage, retail and other services do not gain the benefit of potential pedestrian traffic generated by dispensaries.

It’s no secret that small businesses everywhere face a continuous struggle for survival as they compete against national chains and online competition. The COVID-19 pandemic has only hastened the decline of brick-and-mortar businesses. Data gathered by Yelp indicate that, between the beginning of March through July 22, 72,842 businesses nationwide that closed during the pandemic have closed their doors for good. Researchers at Harvard, however, estimated that number to at 110,000, and that was based on information gathered only through May.

Moreover, many offices are permanently shifting employees to work from home for at least part of the week. That too will have a negative impact on the number of people out and about and patronizing local retail businesses.

In San Diego, tourism-related businesses are taking a tremendous hit, and it is likely there will be ongoing repercussions long after restrictions are lifted.

Meanwhile the cannabis industry projects continued growth well into this decade with a 40 percent increase in sales by 2024.

Retail and hospitality business clusters are an ecosystem with many interdependencies. As the past owner of a small coffee bar in Mission Hills, a significant portion of weekend sales was dependent on customers who were out and about after having weekend brunch at nearby restaurants.

The loss of just a few businesses impacts the economic health of every business nearby. When two restaurants and a small retail shop all closed within a year of one another, my weekend sales dropped approximately 25 percent. Segregating dispensaries deprives small businesses of a ready income stream from the foot traffic dispensaries already generate.

A second unwelcome consequence of segregation is that streets feel less safe. A core tenet of good urban design is the need for “eyes on the street” — business owners, passers-by and residents who have a vested interest in keeping their streets safe and monitoring suspicious activity. They usually sound the first alarm if someone is in trouble or needing assistance. Open storefronts, and streets bustling with retail and sidewalk activity bring more “eyes,” and streets therefore feel safer for all.

Closed stores and empty windows result in emptier sidewalks and streets. Neighborhoods and commercial areas deprived of pedestrian traffic are more vulnerable to urban blight and street and property crime. These streets feel less safe, and discourage visits by pedestrians and casual shoppers. The situation often feeds on itself, thus starting a long and downward spiral. This is a threat that many small commercial areas will likely face in the very near future.

The changing face of brick-and-mortar retail requires that our city leaders, planners and urban designers confront this new equation. It is imperative that we act decisively and now. Delayed action will only allow more small businesses to shrivel and die, and our streets to therefore become less welcoming and safe.

Isn’t it time to lift the veil of shame and myth surrounding dispensaries and allow them into our existing commercial and retail zones? We should respect their rightful role in keeping our streets and cities vibrant, healthy and safe.

John Bertsch is principal of Urban Design Solutions and owned Meshuggah Shack from 2010 to 2019

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