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.
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.
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.
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.
Other Problems for American Apparel