Underground entertainment: the good, bad and the ugly

Late night parties in an empty restaurant at the corner of 9th and Folsom Street have been keeping neighbors awake for the last few months. Last Wednesday a fed up neighbor unloaded a fusillade of eggs at the partygoers who responded by storming the apartment building, climbing up fire escapes to gain entry, necessitating frantic calls to 911. Last year, police were called to 7th and Howard Street by a Fire Inspector who was refused admittance to a warehouse party. A brawl broke out between officers and several attendees. M-80 firecrackers were tossed and up to nine people were arrested.

Underground events have been part of the SoMa scene as far back as I can remember. One regular event tucked away on Langton Street became so institutionalized that the promoters were providing uniformed security and valet parking. Graduation parties, art gallery openings and political fundraisers tread similar permitting ground as far as the authorities are concerned and nobody wants to outlaw them. We all appreciate the creativity, spontaneity and quirkiness that makes this city unique but where do you draw the line and when do you look the other way?

“There have been many nights where one of my venues is slower than normal — sometimes considerably — due to a major headliner’s appearance at some warehouse party with 1000 people in attendance,” the owner of several legitimate clubs told me. “I often imagine the money one could make if they did not have to pay for permits, insure patron safety, pay taxes, etc. The margins on a warehouse party can be 4 times those of a properly licensed venue and while many do it for the love of the art, there are those that have found it to be a very lucrative endeavor,’ he said.

A legally-acquired entertainment permit includes sign-offs on security, electrical, structural and land use issues and costs upwards of $2000. The Planning Code provides an option for one-time events that’s informally known as the “rent party” exception. Almost anyone in South of Market (and the rest of the Eastern Neighborhoods) can apply for a temporary use permit that allows “a performance, exhibition, dance, celebration or festival” twelve times a year. The downside is that the administrative approval costs $400 and that appropriate single use permits (one-time entertainment or 24 hour liquor license for example) are required.

A mixed-use neighborhood is neither residential nor commercial. “This isn’t Petaluma!” the ravers yell. Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be hell for the neighbors either. A different set of rules should apply. The city is beginning to take note.

Representatives from the SFPD, city departments, the arts, the entertainment industry and the community will gather together next Wednesday for a SoMa Leadership Council forum: “Underground entertainment: the good, bad and ugly of it all.” The meeting will be held in the community room of the Folsom/Dore Apartments, 1346 Folsom Street, at 6:00 p.m. Everyone is invited to join in. Help us find some common ground.

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