In Mission Loc@l’s Build Your Block feature on what kinds of businesses should go into the vacancies on Valencia Street, readers suggested everything from a copy store to an organic produce market to a musical instrument shop.
Commercial realtors and urban planners said that while some of these would work, the drawback for success isn’t the roughly $2 to $3 per sq. ft. rent versus the income potential of some of the suggestions, but that residents are very particular about the kinds of businesses they welcome into the neighborhood.
As the American Apparel backlash proved, formula retail stores are out. At the time, the poll of 75 businesses showed the vast majority in favor of maintaining Valencia’s character. In the meantime, smaller businesses are confronted with the challenges of financing.
“In the economic times we’re in, the small non-formula retail find it hard to get started,” said Brett Gladstone, a San Francisco land use attorney. It’s difficult for them to get loans, he added, and they don’t have the financial means to buy goods and fix up a property.
It’s precisely these small, independent, and unique stores that are preferred on Valencia. Pete Glikshtern, a long time business owner and the president of the Mission Merchants Association, said such businesses appeal to niche markets and aren’t necessarily realistic in terms of sustainability. But then Valencia has become a niche zone where many have succeeded.
One that failed is Lark in the Morning, the ethnic music instrument store that was located at 1453 Valencia, near 25th Street. The business closed last November after only a year on the block. Its monthly rent was about $2,850, and coupled with an economy in distress, the owners kept losing money. Melody Gaspon, an employee of the business that still operates a small retail store in Mendocino, said they continue to receive calls from people wondering why they closed their doors.
“At times we had been profitable there,” said Gaspon, “but in the end, we were definitely losing money.”
Andrew Connors, a co-owner of Aquarius Records near 22nd Street, said they wanted to expand into where Spork, the two-year-old restaurant located just across the street, is now, but they decided it was too expensive. Connor said the business was fortunate enough to have moved to their current location 15 years ago.
“If I had to move here right now, I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Small scale still works on Valencia, but needs more orchestration. Take the case of Gypsy Honeymoon, the 17-year-old antique shop formerly located on Guerrero, at 24th Street, that relocated to Valencia Street in January.
The move to a new location – double in space and rent from what the owner paid on Guerrero – was thanks to property owner Ron Mallia, who developed the old auto repair shop that had been vacant for four years, and splitting the space into three retail spots. Phil Lesser, the past president of the Mission Merchants Association, called it “a grand slam for the industry.”
When it came time to find tenants, Mallia was very selective about picking Gypsy Honeymoon, Heart, a wine bar conceived by entrepreneur Jeff Siegel, and Arizmendi Bakery, the popular worker-owned cooperative.
“I wanted to get basically individual entrepreneurs that could bring something into the area that’s unique and different,” he said.
Mallia turned away several prospects that didn’t fit this mold: a large bank, a domestic product store, and a form of retail that wanted to sell clothes and electrical appliances, to name some.
Although for some, the real community service comes down to the opportunities available behind the counter. Nick Pagoulatos at Dolores Street Community Services, located on Valencia near 21st Street, said the nonprofit is excited about Arizmendi Bakery coming into the neighborhood.
“It provides workers with technical assistance and allows the business to root itself in the community,” he said.
Dolores Street and Arizmendi have held conversations about the ways ownership opportunities could be extended to some of the youth looking for jobs in the Mission. “It’s a model that’s interesting,” said Pagoulatos.
Lesser said these businesses make sense on Valencia Street because they appeal to the young urbanite professional, which is the customer base on Valencia.
As far as Glikshtern, the Merchants Association president is concerned, few businesses along the street fulfill the actual everyday needs of the young urbanite.
“There’s no place that sells socks,” he said, pointing to the lack of any practical businesses on the strip. If anything, Valencia could use more grocery stores, like Bi-Rite, or a local pharmacy, or a retail store that sells regular clothes.
Although a number of pharmacies and produce markets can be found just a block east, throughout Mission Street, Glickshtern said if these businesses were found on Valencia, residents wouldn’t have to go to Mission Street.
For Steve Wertheim, who works with the Eastern Neighborhoods Program, the different needs fulfilled by Valencia and Mission streets merchants is what makes the Mission District such a beautiful place. “The fact that all the communities are being served is remarkable,” he said.
An old-school business that has been serving Valencia Street and reminds passersby of the area’s more industrious roots is Ibarra Brothers Printing, near 21st Street. After 15 years in operation they’ve stayed put and are fine just as they are, with no intentions of expanding into the vacancy next door, at 1017 Valencia Street. According to Jose Ibarra, the owner, a restaurant is probably the best bet for that space.
That’s despite reader suggestions that the neighborhood could use an affordable, independently-owned place to make copies.
There’s no conjecturing on whether a business will do well, according to Lesser. Be it a restaurant, another coffeeshop, an arts supply shop or a theatre – as a couple of readers suggested – business owners must put their ideas to the ultimate test.
“You can’t really armchair this,” said Lesser. “The only way to truly find out is somebody has to set up a business and see what happens.”