More than two years after merchants on Valencia Street fought against the arrival of American Apparel, the 1.3 miles of niche shops and restaurants is thriving. Not only has the northern end gotten a makeover with wider, tree-lined sidewalks, but the empty storefronts are also filling up.

Gone are many of the vacancies that lined the commercial strip from 14th Street to Cesar Chavez in the winter of 2009, when most merchants fought against American Apparel moving in. Even the clusters of beleaguered, boarded-up storefronts have vanished, including the three empty storefronts owned by Slanted Door founder Charles Phan. Kept off the market after Phan moved his restaurant in 2002, they have been cleaned up and one is for lease, while the other two addresses opened this week as a 3,000-square-foot workshop run by Levi’s.

The former Daniel Creamery at 780 Valencia — New College up until a couple of years ago — is nearly complete as a café and co-working space for i/o ventures tech startups. On Saturday, a painter was up on a ladder carefully adding the letters Seven Eighty.

Across the street at 739 Valencia, workers on Saturday were hauling away the old interior of another site that was formerly New College, and the outside of the building had been marked with lines to cut a new entrance and windows for what’s likely to be a restaurant, the workers said.

739 Valencia’s interior being cleaned out.

The San Francisco Examiner reported this morning that New College’s former space at 777 Valencia, now owned by Jack Knowles of A Coté in Oakland, could become a restaurant and venue for New Orleans Preservation Hall jazz.

At 988, where American Apparel planned to move in early 2009, After Life, a vintage shop, now operates. An artist worked there on Saturday as well, carefully adding a new mural to the front.

A New Mural at After Life

On the corner, the Viracocha Creation Factory, a store selling furniture and interesting odds and ends, opened this spring, and the Blue Fig Café is nearly ready.

Danielle Teller, the owner of After Life, said she’s happy with the pace of sales.

Vacancies still exist — Mission Loc@l counted three spaces available for lease or sale and three vacant with no apparent plans — but there’s a sense of movement that was absent in the spring of 2009, when the economy was at a low point. Some 12 new places, including Blue Fig, Arizmendi Bakery and B3 restaurant, are about to open.

That level of activity was hard to imagine in the winter of 2009, and some thought it arrogant for the Mission District to turn down American Apparel. But even then the vast majority of businesses on Valencia — Mission Loc@l went door to door from 14th Street to 24th Street — felt the chain would change the character of the street and make it more expensive for independent operators.

What was surprising about that survey was the way in which opposition crossed class and cultural lines. David Marks, the owner of Room4, seemed to sum up the overarching feeling at the time: “I think it will help everyone in the short term and hurt everyone in the long term.”

Of the 75 businesses surveyed, only 15 favored the city giving American Apparel the approval needed for retail operations with more than 10 stores. (In Hayes Valley and North Beach, there is an outright ban on formula retail stores. )

Of the 75 businesses, 40 opposed American Apparel and 20 were either neutral or didn’t know about it.

American Apparel, feeling no support from the neighborhood, pulled out in early 2009, and Valencia businesses began waiting out the recession.

If not all the newcomers to Valencia can be described as strictly local — turn over some of the merchandise and you’ll see that it’s made in (oh dear) China — there is a vibrancy to the foot traffic that is unmistakable.

Moreover, it’s moved south of 24th Street toward Cesar Chavez.

“Things are moving this way,” said Helen Nowik, who works at Natural Resources, a clothing and accessory store for children and mothers located at 1367 Valencia at 25th Street.

Just south of her, The Receiver gallery closed recently, but was quickly leased to another children’s clothing store.

Another small enclave of designer shops is developing north of 16th Street, in the 300 block of Valencia that includes Accident and Artifact and Farnsworth 20th Century Modern Design. On Saturday, Nooworks, once in the Western Addition, opened in the space at 375 Valencia.

“There’s lots of new stores,” said Mia Gonzalez, who owns Encantada, a gallery that had to downsize a couple of years ago because of the fall-off in business. “This is not like the dot-com time that was fast and furious, but there’s definitely a resurgence.”

Only recently, she said, six new shops have moved in nearby.

Randy Figures, who manages the 25-year-old Back to the Picture framing store and art gallery, attributes the surge in openings to landlords “who were holding out” and are now accepting more reasonable rates.

Some of it, however, can be attributed simply to permits finally coming through. Waiting for Zaytoon to open was like waiting for Godot.

In early May, the inside of the Crepe House III looked ready for business, and its owner, Haddadin Bashar Wadee, who was inspecting the finished inside, said he would be open in a couple of weeks. He’s still waiting.

“For two months I’ve been saying two weeks,” said Wadee recently. “This time I think it’s going to be.”

Wadee agreed with Figures that rents are coming down. “I got a good deal,” he said, because the earlier operator ran out of money. He said he’s paying between $2.50 and $3 a square foot on Valencia, compared to around $5 in Hayes Valley.

Wadee already owns two Crepe Houses in San Francisco, and some of the other new stores — such as Arizmendi Bakery — also have duplicates.

In some instances, the new stores on Valencia are from elsewhere in the Mission.

The Painted Bird, a vintage clothing store once on Guerrero Street, moved into 1360 Valencia. Glama Rama at 304 Valencia used to be on South Van Ness.

Some owners are still keeping their property off the market, like Carlos Barrios, one of the owners of La Rondalla. His restaurant at 901 Valencia has been closed for more than a couple of years, and several Missionites have approached him about leasing the space. In the case of a sports bar proposed for the location, Barrios got close to agreeing but then pulled back, according to someone involved with the project.

He held on even in the bleak economy of 2009, and now more than ever, said Gonzalez at Encantada, “he’s not ready to give it up.”

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Poop (of the rodent variety) was one of the reasons La Rondalia closed in the first place…

    Also, can we please put the American Apparel story to bed? Old news is old.

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