American Apparel denied store on Valencia

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American Apparel, which is known for sexy ads and fairly progressive labor practices, failed to convince San Franciscans to let them open a fourth store here.
By Ben Terrall

Yesterday, after a long afternoon of statements from a few supporters and many opponents of American Apparel opening a new store at 988 Valencia Street, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted 7-0 to deny the Los Angeles-based chain the permit they needed to open.

The Commission Chambers at City Hall were packed to capacity as the Planning Commission began its regular meeting. The extra attendees, many of them organized by the hastily-formed "Stop American Apparel" campaign, were moved to two rooms with video monitors which broadcast the meeting.

It was strong show of force by grassroots organizers, one that forced a vote that few thought would be so decisive.

When, almost two and a half hours after the meeting began, the Planning Commission got to the question of the company's bid for a fourth San Francisco store, Board President Ron Miguel pointed out that "sufficient cards for three hours" of comments had been collected. Speakers were allowed a maximum of two minutes, although Miguel encouraged brevity.

Ryan Holiday, American Apparel spokesperson, made initial arguments for his company, stressing its "sweatshop free" work environment which paid "great wages." Holiday also made the odd argument that of the
three existing American Apparel locations in San Francisco, none were accessible by BART or public transportation.

Subsequent speakers against the new locale pointed out that several Muni buses run by A.A.'s Haight street store, and that Union Square and the Marina are hardly underserved by public transit. Ryan Moritz, an employee of the Valencia Street boutique Therapy, said, "I'm loyal to American Apparel, but I can hop on the 33 and be at their Haight
Street store in 10 minutes."

Mission resident Tom Heinz captured the spirit of many who spoke when he said, "while American Apparel appears to be progressive, it's still a large retail chain." Heinz argued that a new A.A. store was
"neither necessary nor desirable."

Several opponents of the project said American Apparel had paid those arguing for the new storefront to appear before the Planning Commission. Nobody who spoke in favor of A.A. denied this, and one staffer commented, "I'm on salary, so I'm being paid." A young man in enormous sunglasses who looked like he was ready for a fashion shoot said, "American Apparel asked me to come up from Los Angeles" to speak on their behalf; an elderly Mission resident next to me laughed at his hipster garb and asked me, "is he wearing pajamas under that jacket?"

Representatives of Borderlands Books, Ritual Roasters, Needles and Pens, Lost Weekend Video and numerous other Mission businesses spoke in opposition to the new store.

Dairo Romero of the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) argued that vacant storefronts were owned by landlords waiting to charge high rents that stores like American Apparel could pay. Romero stressed
that MEDA campaigned hard for Prop. G in 2006, which limits "formula retail stores" in San Francisco.

In her concluding remarks, Commission Vice President Christina Olague said, "there's a certain irony" that many of the current boutiques in the Mission "are not really indigenous." Olague noted, "I moved here in 1982, and there were a lot of lesbian businesses," most of which "are gone." She encouraged the predominantly white community members at the meeting to work with MEDA, and to thus strengthen ties with the Latino activist population in the Mission.

Commission chair Ron Miguel said, "the economic stimulus argument" advanced by American Apparel defenders was "not convincing." Miguel explained, "mom and pop stores also advance economic stimulus." Addressing the American Apparel representatives, he said, "You probably don't have to do it in Los Angeles, but in San Francisco, you have to reach out" to neighborhood residents.

Olague argued that in their contacts with the neighborhood "American Apparel definitely screwed up." She said that Valencia Street was not a neighborhood where chains are wanted, and called for a vote disapproving the proposed development.

After the vote, Holiday emailed The Guardian that "When we introduced ourselves we said we wanted to be a positive part of the neighborhood. With what we heard from the people who live on Valencia Street, it doesn't look that is possible so we're going to sublet the space to someone else."

Given that it would take eight of the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors to override the Planning Commission vote if an appeal is filed, A.A. probably made the right call to just let it go.