The next battle over chain stores on the increasingly gentrified Valencia Street has likely arrived. Aesop, an upscale Australian perfume retailer, and San Francisco messenger bag company Chrome Industries, confirmed to Mission Local that they plan to move into a vacant Valencia Street storefront early next year.
If recent history is any indication, it’s the Aussie company that’s in for a San Francisco treat — and it sure isn’t Rice-A-Roni — in opening what would be its 12th U.S. store — putting it squarely within the definition of chain stores in the San Francisco planning code. Merchants on Valencia have now famously stopped two formula retail projects from moving in over the years — Jack Spade and American Apparel.
Zoning restrictions in the Mission require chain stores — defined by the city as any company that has 11 or more brick-and-mortar locations in the United States — to get a special permit. Since Aesop is over the threshold with its dozen locations nationwide, including two locations already in San Francisco, the Planning Commission would hold a public hearing before granting approval.
City planner Richard Sucre said the department did receive an application for a certificate confirming that Aesop’s planned façade matches the aesthetic requirements of the Liberty Hill historic district. That application has not yet been approved. Yet the company has not yet filed for a conditional use permit.
It was during this conditional use process when some Valencia merchants quashed American Apparel’s bid to open in 2009. The planning commission has approved other chain stores in the Mission including Pollo Campero, AutoZone, Fresh & Easy and AT&T.
Then came Jack Spade. The Valencia Corridor Merchants Association successfully quashed a seven month-long campaign to stop the luxury mens clothes retailer from moving into the former location of Adobe Books at 16th Street and Valencia streets. The shop owners argued that Jack Spade should be considered formula retail because it is owned by parent company Fifth & Pacific, which also operates Kate Spade stores.
Former city supervisors Matt Gonzales and Tom Ammiano, who were the architects of the formula retail law, wrote letters to the city’s Board of Appeals, arguing that Jack Spade fell within the type of chain stores targeted by the law — those that can absorb higher startup costs and rent. The Board of Appeals voted to rehear the appeal, and Jack Spade appears to have abandoned its bid.
Aesop likely does not know the NIMBY hazing that may lie in its future. The opposition to Jack Spade appeared to be news to Aesop’s New York-based spokeswoman Victoria Del Rico when Mission Local talked to her Monday. “We’re not trying to gentrify the neighborhood,” she responded. “We like to have small stores that go with the neighborhood.”
Del Rico compared Aesop stores to 19th century apothecaries peddling compounds for medicinal purposes. Aesop is certainly an upscale iteration: with its $100 body balm and $90 perfumes, the store was an easy fit for tony Pacific Heights and the Marina, where they opened earlier this year.
About the Mission, “We are not in a hurry to open,” she said. “We want to get to know the neighborhood.”
Aesop and Chrome plan to move into two separate storefronts at 956 Valencia St. — between 20th and 21st, next door to Mission Creek Café — which has been vacant since July when The Touch, a furniture store, moved to Mission Street after the landlord tripled the rent. This week, the store was vacant with construction workers inside. The Valencia property owner, a limited liability company named after the building’s address, didn’t respond to an email.
Chrome wouldn’t be considered formula retail under the definition of the planning department. The Valencia Merchants Association approves of Chrome, a San Francisco-founded company known for its American-made messenger bags selling for $80 to $200 and cycling accessories. Its merchandise is already carried by Mission Bicycle, the general manager of which was one of the main opponents of Jack Space.
The proposed Valencia Street location would be Chrome’s fifth store nationwide, and its second San Francisco location. At 1,500 square feet, the Valencia store would be smaller than it’s SoMa headquarters, said Steve McCallion, the company’s president, yet was lured to the Mission by the substantial foot and bike traffic.
“We have a lot of business friends there, Benny Gold, Betabrand, Four Barrel — all amazing local brands that we cherish and admire,” he said. “We spend so much time there we might as well spend more time there.”
Over the past years Valencia Street has become a destination corridor for tony restaurants and boutiques, making other businesses in the area nervous about rising rents.
Yet Philip Lesser, a consultant for businesses that want to move into the Mission, including Jack Spade, says the wealthy clientele is still attracting the retailers despite the street’s track record of opposition.
“It’s no secret that high-end retailers want people with high disposable income,” he said, “and they are living in and frequenting the area.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Aesop had already obtained a certificate of appropriateness. We regret the error.