Steven LeMay, owner of vintage store Retrofit, told the commission why he opposed American Apparel's Valencia St. store at a public hearing on Feb. 5, 2009.

After failing to win support from the planning commission Thursday night, a spokesman from American Apparel said the company would stand by an earlier promise to not force its way into the storefront at 988 Valencia St.

“The next step is to find someone to sublet,” spokesman Ryan Holiday said after the commissioners spent about four hours and heard more than 60 public speakers, most of whom made it clear the Los Angeles-based chain store was unwelcome.

The commissioners voted to pass on Thursday’s motion to approve American Apparel’s plan to move to the Mission District street known for its independent and quirky businesses.

“You almost guarantee defeat if you don’t work with the neighborhood and answer their questions,” said Ron Miguel, president of the eight-member commission.

American Apparel could wait for the commission to vote in two weeks on a motion to disapprove the plan. However, that looked doubtful. Holiday said he would return to Los Angeles to talk to the company’s officials, but he said a few businesses had already expressed interested in subletting the space.

Ryan Holiday, American Apparel spokesman, spoke about the company's anti-sweatshop policies at the planning commission hearing on Feb. 5.
Ryan Holiday, American Apparel spokesman, talked about the company.

At the hearing, residents and businessmen talked about vacancies, gentrification and the recession facing the Valencia corridor. The commissioners emphasized that American Apparel’s team in San Francisco failed to do due diligence to get the Mission community on board with its plans.

“I don’t think anyone [on the commission] has seen this outpouring of community involvement at least in recent history,” said Miguel.

The commission had to open two extra rooms to accommodate the few hundred people who tried to squeeze into the hearing room.

Inside the main room, it looked as if Valencia Street had moved to city hall.

Amnesia owner Shawn Magee, who hosted an anti-American Apparel rally featuring comedienne Margaret Cho at his bar, sat behind Paxton Gate owner Sean Quigley, who came to support the cause despite being an exhausted father of a newborn baby.

At the microphone during the four-hour public comment portion, Lost Weekend Video co-owner David Hawkins lifted up a stack of papers and presented 2,500 signatures collected in the neighborhood.

Steven LeMay, owner of vintage store Retrofit, told the commission why he opposed American Apparel's Valencia St. store at a public hearing on Feb. 5, 2009.
Steven LeMay, owner of vintage store Retrofit, told the commission why he opposed the store’s opening at a public hearing on Feb. 5.

The owner of vintage store Retrofit, Steven LeMay, with long pigtail braids across his shoulders, told commissioners that he’d have to reconsider selling American Apparel clothes at his store, which is on the same block as the proposed store.

Ritual Roasters owner Eileen Hassi drew a metaphor of the neighborhood as a delicate flower that needed to be fostered.

But it wasn’t just the so-called “Mission hipsters” who spoke out against the company’s Valencia Street location.

Manish Champsi, who lives two blocks from the storefront in question, told the commission that he learned from his father, a commercial property real estate agent, the value of fostering local business.

But amid the hearing’s speeches, it was the number of vacancies on Valencia Street—about 27, by the planning commission’s count—that emerged as the main issue facing the neighborhood.

“Why are [the vacancies] here? Are they storerooms? Are they holding on for higher rents? What is the problem?” said Commissioner Michael Abtonini.

“Landlords aren’t renting. They’re sitting and waiting for big companies,” said Breezy Culbertson, owner of Needles and Pens on 16th Street.

Commissioner and land-use activist Christina Olague was overcome with emotion when she began to address the group about the gentrification she’s seen in the neighborhood since she moved here in 1982.

“Upscale boutiques aren’t indigenous to the Mission neighborhood,” said Olague, who talked about the number of lesbian businesses that used to span the corridor.

She also challenged people at the hearing to get involved with Latino businesses and organizations to keep them from being priced out of the neighborhood.

The main hearing room and two overflow rooms were packed with Mission residents in opposition to American Apparel's Valencia St. store.
The main hearing room and two overflow rooms were packed with Mission residents in opposition to American Apparel

Dairo Romero, organizer with the Mission Economic Development Agency, said he’s been opposing formula retail in the neighborhood longer than most in the room. He said it was in fact a position supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom who promoted the “shop local” campaign during the holidays.

About a dozen people—many wearing single-hued, cotton separates—spoke in favor of American Apparel. When they did, there was the inevitable hiss.

Jack Renoud, who works at American Apparel’s Haight Street store, said his shop takes care of its employees. He pointed to the store’s policy to pay for employees to take English as a Second Language courses.

“Ritual coffee will get 10 more cups of coffee a day from people who work at American Apparel,” he said.

In the hallway after the hearing, Holiday said it was a shame people didn’t know about the company’s positive impact on the community. He said when they signed their Valencia Street lease, they donated 20,000 articles of clothing (about the entire inventory of one store) to Bay Area charities.

“I think that if people had an open-minded approach to us, they would have seen what we’re about,” he said.

But at the hearing, commissioners made it clear it was the company’s job to prove that they belonged in the neighborhood.

“American Apparel did not reach out, and I have to say that is absolutely necessary in San Francisco,” said Miguel, the chairman.

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Map: Valencia Businesses Talk About American Apparel

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Love Hurts: Mission Culture Crowd And American Apparel

Campos Keeps Quiet on American Apparel

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  1. A few notes:

    The count of 27 vacant storefronts was not the Planning Commission’s own, but an informal count by one of the public commenters, which was then repeated.

    There is a strong indication that the American Apparel employees who spoke at the meeting were being paid to be there. Once one commenter-against made this widely known, neither the two AA employees who immediately followed her nor any others ever acknowledged it.

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  2. The commissioner said that American Apparel didn’t reach out to the community? what was the 20,000 articles of clothing to local charities? Not good enough for the see of white faces in that telling photo accompanying this article, I suppose. This was a terrible, bigoted decision. The only brown people this white kids want to see on Valencia are the ones serving them burritos.

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  3. Thanks for this informative, well-written article. MissionLoc@l is blowing the socks off the Chronicle on this issue.

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  4. I’m a Mission resident, white, an immigrant, a business owner. I have no guilt over working my ass off for almost 20 years to build a business in this area and for contributing to my neighborhood. I was displaced from my home through the Ellis act, it did not matter if I was white, Latino, or Asian. Stop using the “white” label to villainize people who actually give a shit.

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  5. Also, I just love the picture of the “Mission residents” packing the Planning Commission meeting. It is a very revealing photo. Notice in the picture how most of the audience is composed of yuppie white people. And THEY are concerned about gentrification and Latino businesses being pushed out? Really? Rather, I think they feel responsible for the gentrification and “ethnic cleansing” they brought about by taking over the neighborhood from its former residents. Now, they can partially cleanse their guilt by standing up to American Apparel. How nice for them! But, how many jobs have they created for the working class in San Francisco?

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  6. This is a foolish, foolish decision. American Apparel is a California-grown company which sells Californian-made clothing produced by individuals making a living wage, instead of the cheap imports produced by slave-labor found at many chain-stores. The company sets the bar for ethical and responsible business practices. However, apparently since the company has more than 12 stores, it is a “bad company.” I guess the Mission is better served by empty storefronts, which translate into fewer jobs and lower property tax revenue. Fine, I hope people enjoy the extra sting which will come on top of the brutal city budget cuts. When they see their health care, police protection, street paving, and other services diminish, they can feel comforted knowing that helped contribute to them, by standing firm to maintain the “special fee” of the neighborhood. It is absolute B.S. to pretend that the addition of American Apparel would threaten any local businesses–even ones that sell some of their apparel. The store would have ATTRACTED new consumers to the neighborhood, and encouraged similar, LOCAL clothing stores to locate nearby. People in San Francisco can be so utterly delusional and clueless that I could just scream. As for Margaret Cho, she is a (usually) funny lady, but if she cares so much for the damn Mission, then why doesn’t she mover her MILLIONAIRE butt up from L.A. to live in the neighborhood. Or, how about contributing some of her personal fortune to improve the neighborhood? Oh, yes, that would constitute making a REAL sacrifice. And the “message” sent to businesses,thinking of locating in San Francisco, or any urban area? Don’t bother being an ethical company which tries to meet the needs of urban communities. No, just abandon the cities, plunk down a huge-cookie cutter building in the suburbs and sell cheap products produced by child-labor in Bangledesh. You’ll have less headaches getting your store approved, and ironically, you’ll probably foster a better public image.

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  7. Thank god we scared away a business that wanted to bring jobs and treat people well. It’s easy to say its “unnecessary and undesirable” when the person saying it has a job or a comfortable business. And this is precisely why majorities aren’t supposed to be able to exact laws that are mainly felt by minorities. This is what we call a Pyrrhic victory.

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