A developer has indicated he intends to build some housing over on 11th Street and, in my friend Barry’s inelegant phrasing, the nightclubs have got their panties in a knot.
The implication of course is that the development portends the imminent arrival of another pack of whining yuppies, appalled by the pee in their doorways, obsessed about their return on investment and intent on driving out the last vestiges of fun from South of Market.
Hold on, buckaroo. It’s a little too easy to oversimplify the complicated dynamics of this evolving mixed-use community.
SoMa has been an experiment in mixed-use zoning since its transition from the industrial zoning of the early twentieth century to the service, light industrial and residential neighborhood plan that was adopted in 1990. The "South of Market Plan” was the city’s first attempt to codify new land use regulations that allowed a mixture of not entirely compatible uses to coexist. It was a quintessential South of Market approach and overall, it is a good plan.
First, it recognized that there was a strong residential community already in place. Much of that community, living in the alleys we now call residential enclaves, worked in the blue-collar industries that proliferate in SoMa. Preservation of these working class jobs became the second goal of the new SoMa zoning. Finally, the area’s bohemian roots were recognized by an emphasis on encouraging the arts.
But to many of you from outside of South of Market, this is “where the nightclubs are."
There is a great deal of sympathy for maintaining the music, dance and art that the entertainment industry provides. That has led to proposals in the past that would elevate the nightclubs to a protected status by down-zoning residential uses.
The residents of South of Market lead quiet lives, sandwiched in between auto body shops and looming lofts, sharing a neighborhood characterized by extreme poverty and excessive wealth. Some are artists and musicians, drawn here by the existence of the clubs. Since the 1970s, many gays have called SoMa home. Others are raising families in the sprawling apartment buildings that line the alleys. In 1990, their residential status became a fully-permitted, as-of-right use.
There have been rumblings of interest in imposing Interim Controls in light of the 11th Street development. That would temporarily down-zone surrounding residences and deflate their property value. Any attempt to roll back residential uses' fully-permitted status is unacceptable to everyone who lives here. It is considered the "nuclear option."
Before we launch into another neighbor/nightclub war, there is a set of facts that must be understood:
SoMa has had bars practically since the first tent was pitched on our sand dunes. Those bars reflected the many changes in population. Bars catered to longshoremen, newspaper writers and taxi drivers; they served the Irish, Mexican-Americans and Filipinos. In the 1970s, many became gay bars. But nightclubs were few and far between.
It was the AIDS epidemic that suddenly made many liquor-serving venues available all at once. New ventures that catered to a different crowd proliferated. The loss of one gay bar after another was not well received but SoMa had become a community of caregivers and our priorities were elsewhere.
SoMa's warehouses housed many underground art events. Auto shops by day became rehearsal halls at night. Happenings evolved into raves. Low rents and traditional levels of tolerance made SoMa attractive to musicians.
It has become fashionable to say that a grave injustice was done to nightclubs in the 1990 rezoning. But the community planning process that went into it, lasting nearly five years, was open to all and the Planning Department was particularly open to expanding entertainment opportunities. The Broadway nightclub area was in decline and SoMa was touted as the new entertainment zone. That alarmed the existing residents.
Waves of bridge-and-tunnel youths descended on SoMa, bringing noise, nuisance and vandalism with them. But there was a high level of distrust of the San Francisco Police Department in the community. Gays had their traditional antipathy and the immigrant population shied away from figures of authority. Police response to the influx of clubs was, at best, ineffective and, at its worst, complicit with the behavior of certain club owners. The SFPD has never been very successful at striking a decent balance between protecting the rights of neighbors and respecting the business interests of the entertainment industry in South of Market.
The increase in nighttime entertainment frightened the community.
When the industrial zoning gave way to mixed-use zoning, a residential community that felt under assault refused to allow the planners to characterize nightclubs as an as-of-right use. Instead, existing locations were grandfathered in as legal non-conforming uses. Within that framework, an entertainment industry was allowed to thrive but the expansion of entertainment uses throughout the area was prohibited.
It is true that in the mid-'80s some club owners thought it would be cool to turn Folsom Street into an entertainment zone. But that was considered in the 1990 rezoning and was rejected.
Nevertheless, concentrations of entertainment venues did develop, and SoMa became a destination for those who were looking for a good time. Live music venues featured some great entertainment. Good restaurants developed along Folsom Street. The arts community thrived. As multi-media morphed into the dot-com phenomenon of the late '90s, bringing with it youths and disposable incomes, some club owners began to assert that "this was always supposed to be an entertainment zone."
If you repeat an untruth often enough, many begin to believe it.
A young Gavin Newsom, newly appointed to the Board of Supervisors by then Mayor Willie Brown, took up the torch for the nightclubs by introducing legislation that would not only make the clubs fully-permitted uses but would encourage a Bourbon Street permissiveness at the expense of the neighbors' rights. For three years the neighbors and nightclubs fought a bitter war that included police harassment and court actions to shut down venues and an unsolved case of arson that destroyed a fifteen unit live/work structure at the corner of 11th and Harrison Streets.
Ron Viner owned a charming old 4-unit apartment building on Norfolk Alley just off Folsom Street. He had his share of troubles with the venue across the alley but also had a fondness for the young, struggling entrepreneurs he called "the cowboys." Ron's home caught fire. We stood transfixed while the building was consumed. The club emptied out and they danced in the street. I hope that there is a special place in hell reserved for those who danced.
Club owners can be like an overgrown teenager with the biggest sound system on the block. They're not trained negotiators. When faced with a conflict with neighbors they can be overwhelmed by the drama of the situation. Their livelihood is at stake. They often substitute sweeping promises for practical solutions. "But I promised!" they'll protest. But you didn't follow through on your promises, they're told.
At any given time, there's usually at least one problem club in the neighborhood. Off-duty deejays and promoters often flock there. The music might be too loud, the customers unruly. If the truth be told, these places are often damn good fun.
Frankly that befits the renegade nature of South of Market. So long as the outlaw clubs move around every now and then, they don't bother me all that much.
The war ended when people of good will on both sides came to their senses. The intent of the 1990 South of Market Plan was to encourage the development of a community that was pleasant and enjoyable to all those who lived, worked and played in SoMa. Old-time residents spoke up for some of the entertainment venues that had become permanent fixtures in their neighborhoods and club owners began to question why the neighbors should be treated like enemies.
There were many heroes.
On the nightclub side, Carl Hanken from the Endup and Ira Sandler from Club 1015 understood what it meant to be a part of the community. Ira worked with the SOMPAC redevelopment project and was a tireless proponent of affordable housing. Carlton Solle moved in upstairs from his bar Butter and bravely showed up at the residents association meetings to assert that he too was a resident. Pete Glikshtern, Stephanie, Nick Finn and others banded together to become the San Francisco Late Night Coalition and they spread the Good Neighbor Policy throughout the clubs. Terrance Alan has helped facilitate more mediation efforts than anyone else.
Among residents, we had Maddog, the tattoo artist, and although he repeatedly forswore any political agenda, his "why can't we all get along" attitude was as political as anyone's at the time. He still maintains the residents' website at www.somara.org. Clyde Wildes, the founder of the Raising Colors contingent that festoons Market Street with rainbow flags every June, defended everyone's right to have a good time. Tom Whiting made friends with the Brainwash crowd. Brian Wallace, once upon a time a loftdweller, embraced the diversity of SoMa. Pearl Ong built trust because she too loved to dance.
So the clubs are stirred up again by the possibility of more housing being built on 11th Street. I'm sensitive to the impact their new neighbors might have. The project sponsor recently presented a new option that dramatically increases the commercial space on the ground floor. A 38 foot section would feature a 19 foot high ceiling and the remainder would have 11 foot ceilings. That provides an excellent opportunity to put in a use that's compatible with the neighboring nighttime entertainment activities. The residential mix has been changed as well, with smaller units facing the 11th Street side. I hope local residents and nightclub interests can continue approaching this as a community concern.
But I'm beginning to hear that nonsense about the zoning having been a mistake (it was a very intentional reaction at that time) and how this was always supposed to be an entertainment zone (there has never been community support for such a notion). SoMa has just begun a new community planning process. The decisions that were made in 1990 are back on the table. Once again, everyone is invited to be part of the process and if we approach this as a community, not as enemies, the entertainment industry has much to gain.
As a commissioner on the city's Entertainment Commission, I often walk around the clubs late at night and occasionally see things I'd rather not acknowledge. But "don't screw up the fun," I mutter, and I walk home. I guess my message to the clubs is, "Don't screw this up either."
Because, like it or not, the concentration of entertainment venues has become one more thing that makes South of Market special. The strength of this community is the mutual respect shown for all of its constituents. Together we can face the challenges of new developments in the vicinity of nightclubs. It is not necessary to pit neighbors against nightclubs again.
Jim Meko is a South of Market activist, currently serving as chair of both the SoMa Leadership Council and the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force and is a member of San Francisco's Entertainment Commission. Here at the Bulldog, of course, he's expressing his own personal opinions. He can be reached at email@example.com.