A few doors north from the public notice announcing American Apparel’s application to open shop in a vacant storefront, Roger Ryan is surrounded by orange tags halving prices, and red signs that read, “Going out of business sale.” Ryan, who owns two storefronts along the business corridor, will close the doors of his flagship Z-Barn Interiors shop on the 900 block of Valencia Street for good on Saturday.   [lang_en]

[lang_en]“If I’d known American Apparel was opening a store here, I would have kept my doors open longer,” Ryan said. “Right now, this block is actually a dead block.”

The debate on the street is whether American Apparel will help revive the block or create an invasion of chain stores. The planning commission will hold a public hearing on the matter on Feb. 5, but in the meantime, the Mission District and Valencia Street in particular has become ground zero for the debate around economic recovery versus chain challenges.

“We’re not against American Apparel. We’re against mega chain stores opening on Valencia Street,” said resident and founder of the Rumpus, Stephen Elliot, who is a main organizer against the store’s Mission location—its fourth in San Francisco.

Residents—500 or so if anyone’s counting signatures—began their offensive in mid-January, when Elliott looked twice at the public notice posted on the vacant store’s window. Led by residents and business owners, the group has collected the signatures, plastered the corridor from 14th to 24th streets with tabloid-sized “Stop American Apparel” posters and enlisted more than 30 businesses to be listed on their blog as opposing the store.

An informal survey of shoppers and shop owners along Valencia Street shows an interest in economic development along the corridor where many storefronts are vacant, but mixed views on whether chain stores will harm the neighborhood culture.

“I have no idea why they need to claim more land,” said Courtland Donaldson, 24, who has worked at Shoe Biz for more than three years. “If anyone wants to shop there they have three other locations.” Shoe Biz also has another location in the Haight.

At the Laundromat at 789 Valencia St., Don MacPherson folded laundry in the late afternoon sunlight. MacPherson, who’s currently unemployed from the surveillance business, has lived in the Mission since he emigrated from the United Kingdom in 1981.

“If it’s going to create jobs for people, then invite American Apparel in because more than 50,000 jobs were cut just this morning,” he said.

Further north on Valencia, Jeremy Tooker posted “Stop American Apparel” signs in the window of Four Barrel Coffee near 15th Street, which he opened last August. Wearing a grey sweatshirt he bought at American Apparel, Tooker echoed many people’s views when he emphasized that he likes the company but doesn’t believe it fits in the Mission’s culture.

“Obviously I have nothing against American Apparel,” he said. “But I love that there are no chains here.”

Wayne Whelan sells American Apparel clothing at Therapy, his shop near 16th Street. Though he said the company’s products fit the neighborhood, its presence would welcome a host of other chain stores to also open shop.

“American Apparel in itself won’t affect the flavor of the community,” he said. “But it sets a precedent that will allow other big businesses to come here. Soon we’ll have Jamba Juices, Starbucks and Cheesecake Factories.”

Since he first opened shop in 1994, Whelan has expanded his business to five other locations across the Bay Area, which puts him close to having more than 10 locations and being considered a formula retail store.

“I’m halfway to not being allowed,” Whelan said.

Josh Balorosi, who has been a manager for Luna Park for about three years, said he had no problem with the store opening nearby and doubted it would affect the restaurant.

Many neighbors have never heard of American Apparel, including Laura Hopper, director of Psychic Horizons, a few doors down from the proposed store.

“I would prefer not to have chains, but if I’ve never heard of it, it can’t be that big,” said Hopper, who’s been in business on Valencia Street for about 11 years. “It’s always better to have the space filled.”

“I really hope Valencia can be the first street going through these changes to find a balance between doing well and becoming Haight Street,” said Alan Beatts, owner of Borderlands Books.

According to Michael O’Connor, president of the Small Business Commission, planners should encourage local businesses that can’t rely on the Internet for sales to open in what’s becoming a destination shopping area. O’Connor opened a clothing retailer, Destiny, next door to his parents’ Harrington Brothers Antiques at 17th Street about a year ago. He said the neighborhood has a tradition of growing businesses, including Slanted Door, which was begun by “a guy who graduated from Mission High.”

“In certain areas, chain stores are helpful in growing neighborhoods. But in this particular case it’s not necessary,” O’Connor said. “It’s not like the space won’t get rented.”

That’s not always true. The Valencia space where the Slanted Door once thrived now sits vacant. It wanted to expand during the dot-com boom but residents objected, so the popular Vietnamese restaurant moved downtown and then to the Ferry Building.

Most of the debate over American Apparel has taken place on the blogosphere, with a sort of dialogue between Mission Mission, SFist and Elliot’s blog, Stop American Apparel. Mission Mission prompted American Apparel to issue an open letter called, “Note From a Potential Neighbor.”

In the letter, the company explained its anti-sweatshop business philosophy and asked that readers “give it a moment to see if we’re a good fit for the space. Because at the end of the day if the community doesn’t want us there, we have no intention of forcing our way in.”

Spokesman Ryan Holiday confirmed the letter’s authenticity and added that the company started out as a small business in Los Angeles.

“We see ourselves as an independent business,” Holiday said.

American Apparel now has more than 250 outlets worldwide and Holiday said the company gave about $10 million of stock to its employees during the last quarter in 2008. He added that the company pays its employees in China the same wage they would make in the United States.

Formula retail stores are banned in two San Francisco neighborhoods, Hayes Valley and North Beach. In all other neighborhood commercial districts, including the Mission, these stores (defined as companies with more than 10 stores) must apply for a permit from the city’s planning department and go through a public hearing to open shop.

American Apparel had to take an extra step before they could approach the planning commission because the storefront is in the Liberty Hill Historic District. The city’s Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board (renamed the Historic Preservation Commission after the Nov. 2008 election) must approve any change to the exterior of a residence or business in an historic district as culturally appropriate. The board gave its stamp of approval to the company’s plans in June 2008.

About 10 business owners against welcoming American Apparel into the neighborhood met with Supervisor David Campos’ aide Sheila Chung Hagen on Mon., Jan. 26, to express their views and ask for the supervisor’s stance on the issue.

Hagel said the supervisor hasn’t decided whether he will take one.

Pilar LaValley, of the San Francisco Planning Department, said she’s received about 50 emails against the store and about 27 in favor.

“We do encourage ground-floor retail or commercial uses within this district,” LaValley said, and added that she documents all community input and gives it to the commission.

The next step is a public hearing on Feb. 5 before the planning commission. Organizers are holding a rally at Amnesia on Feb. 2.   [/lang_en]

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  1. “Right now, this block is actually a dead block.”

    That’s pretty much the end of discussion right there. If stores are closing and the other businesses are in danger, self-prostrating commerce in the area just seems like a lose-lose situation. If someone wants to open up, ESPECIALLY when everyone else is shutting down, I say welcome them. If we’re scared of the Mission turning into another Haight and since everyone is only worried about a strip mall forming, can’t we just fight against Jamba Juice, Starbucks (who is actually closing a ton of locations lately) and Cheesecake Factories when they come?

    From what I gather, the city takes these on a case by case basis. American Apparel isn’t the same kind of mechanical corporate retailer that Chipotle is and we still have those kind of stores around the corner on Mission! The store will bring jobs with benefits to the area and will increase foot traffic. On top of it all, inhibiting any kind of action that can be a boon to the local economy seems like lunacy.

  2. a few months ago, i had a conversation with a friend, who is an acquaintance of charles phan, about the empty storefront. she said that he still owns the building and has other intentions for it’s use, which is why he hasn’t chosen to lease it. she also said that he is a former architect and has had thoughts about renovating the building. so it really shouldn’t be cited as an example of a space that cannot be rented.

  3. “If stores are closing and the other businesses are in danger, self-prostrating commerce in the area just seems like a lose-lose situation. If someone wants to open up, ESPECIALLY when everyone else is shutting down, I say welcome them”

    Stores are closing because of rent increases. There are many stores who wouldn’t be able to stay open if rents went up significantly for them. Excepting rents to stay magically at lower non-chain-retail levels post the addition of a chain store is unrealistic.

    Ever wonder why the only stores that seem to be on Mission Street are Dollar stores, paycheck cashing places, and places that sell alcohol? Hint: high profit margins.

    Go walk along Valencia Street and ask businesses what they would do if their rent doubled. How many could stay open? (hint: non of the renting bookstores) How many own their location?

    Saying we should let them open just because it will “bring in jobs” isn’t the argument to make. What else does the neighborhood gain? What do we stand to lose?

  4. American Apparel has already managed to open a store on Haight Street, despite a memorandum/ban there for chain or formula stores!! Very sneaky!!

    My name is Werner Werwie. I immigrated to San Francisco from Germany in 1984 and fulfilled the American Dream. I learned the language and submerged myself into the subculture of San Francisco by opening my first store “Clothes Contact“. We were the first used clothing store on Valencia Street.We opened our first store in 1986 on 473 Valencia at 16th Street. Clothes Contact was a true early pioneer on Valencia street. Our neighbors were the Picaro Cafe and Rainbow Grocery and then “nothing” – commercial desert. . . The 5000 square foot store was used as a storage room for “Golden Bear”, before we moved in. Three years later we incorporated as “Retro City Fashions, Inc.” We will be celebrating our 20th anniversary this year in June!

    We now have 6 stores with 40 employees in the Mission, Haight and Telegraph/Berkely, 6 VERY different stores -ranging from Thrift Store to High End Vintage Boutique, (”Held Over” and “La Rosa Vintage” on Haight Street, check them out next time your on Haight!))

    We have always paid more than minimum wages and offer a company HMO health plan to full timers. We have been recycling clothing and fabric (being green !!) for 23 years, providing cool fashions and fabrics to hundred of thousands of happy customers. Most of our inventory is “vintage”, 20 years old or older. Most of our business is local but we do have fans coming from all over the world. Manager and staff of eight all live in the Mission We hire and promote locally!

    We sell A LOT (!!!) of clothing, not just for Halloween or the Burning Man event but every single day – and are not afraid of competion. In fact, the American Apperal store would most likely help our revenues – but we are concerned about Valencia Street being turned into ANOTHER boring strip mall.

    It took Valencia Street over 20 years to develop into a wonderful destrict and I’m saddened to see it going downhill with formula / chain stores!! Please vote against an American Apparel store on Valencia.

    Werner Werwie, Retro City Fashions, Inc. President

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