Death of fun, the sequel
NIMBY assault! Crackdown on nightlife and outdoor events continues, even as the backlash gains strength
By Steven T. Jones and Amanda Witherell
Fun – in the form of fairs, festivals, bars, art in the parks, and the freedom to occasionally drink alcohol in public places – is under attack in San Francisco.
The multipronged assault is coming primarily from two sources: city agencies with budget shortfalls and NIMBYs who don’t like to hear people partying. The crackdown has only intensified since the Guardian sounded the alarm last year (see “The Death of Fun,” 5/24/06), but the fun seekers are now organizing, finding some allies, and starting to push back.
Mayor Gavin Newsom and other city hall leaders have been meeting with the Outdoor Events Coalition, which formed last year in response to the threat, about valuing the city’s beloved social gatherings and staving off steep fee hikes that have been sought by the Recreation and Park, Fire, Public Works, and Police departments.
Those conversations have already yielded at least a temporary reprieve from a substantial increase in use fees for all the city’s parks. It’s also led to a rollback of the How Weird Street Faire’s particularly outrageous police fees (its $7,700 sum last year jumped to $23,833 this year – despite the event being forced by the city to end two hours earlier – before pressure from the Guardian and city hall forced it back down to $4,734).
The San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee will also wade into the issue April 25 when it considers a resolution warning that “San Francisco has become noticeably less tolerant of nightlife and outdoor events.” It is sponsored by Scott Wiener, Robert Haaland, Michael Goldstein, and David Campos.
The measure expresses this premier political organization’s “strong disagreement with the City agencies and commissions that have undermined San Francisco’s nightlife and tradition of street festivals and encourages efforts to remove obstacles to the permitting of such venues and events up to and including structural reform of government permitting processes to accomplish that goal.”
The resolution specifically cites the restrictions and fee increases that have hit the How Weird Street Faire, the Haight Ashbury Street Fair (where alcohol is banned this year for the first time), and the North Beach Jazz Festival, but it also notes that a wide variety of events “provide major fundraising opportunities for community-serving nonprofits such as HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, and violence-prevention organizations that are dependent upon the revenue generated at these events.”
Yet the wet blanket crowd still seems ascendant. Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier now wants to ban alcohol in all city parks that contain playgrounds, which is most of them. Hole in the Wall has hit unexpected opposition to its relocation (see “Bar Wars,” 4/18/07), while Club Six is being threatened by its neighbors and the Entertainment Commission about noise issues. And one group is trying to kill a band shell made of recycled car hoods that is proposed for temporary summer placement on the Panhandle.
That project, as well as the proposal for drastically increased fees for using public spaces, is expected to be considered May 3 by the Rec and Park Commission, which is likely to be a prime battleground in the ongoing fight over fun.
Rec and Park, like many other city departments, is facing a big budget shortfall and neglected facilities overdue for attention. A budget analyst audit last year also recommended that the department create a more coherent system for its 400 different permits and increase fees by 2 percent.
Yet the department responded by proposing to roughly double its special event fees, even though they make up just $560,000 of the $4.5 million that the department collects from all fees. Making things even worse was the proposal to charge events based on a park’s maximum capacity rather than the actual number of attendees.
The proposal caused an uproar when it was introduced last year, as promoters say it would kill many beloved events, so it was tabled. Then an almost identical proposal was quietly introduced this year, drawing the same concerns.
“These are just preliminary numbers, and they may change,” department spokesperson Rose Dennis told us, although she wouldn’t elaborate on why the same unpopular proposal was revived.
Event organizers, who were told last year that they would be consulted on the new fee schedule, were dumbfounded. They say the new policy forces them to come up with a lot of cash if attendance lags or the weather is bad.
Mitigating such a risk means charging admission, corralling corporate sponsorship, or pushing more commerce on attendees. This may not be a hindrance for some of the well-known and sponsored events such as Bay to Breakers and SF Pride, but consider how the low-budget Movie Night in Dolores Park might come up with $6,000 instead of $250, or how additional permit fees could strangle the potential of nascent groups such as Movement for Unconditional Amnesty.
The group is sponsoring a march in honor of the Great American Boycott of 2006. On May 1 it will walk from Dolores Park to the Civic Center in recognition of immigrants’ rights. The group wanted to offer concessions, because food vendors donate a percentage of their sales to the organization, but the permit fee for propane use from the Fire Department was too high.
“They couldn’t guarantee they’d make more than $1,200 in food to cover the costs of permits,” said Forrest Schmidt, of the ANSWER Coalition, who is assisting the organizers. “So they lost an opportunity to raise funds to support their work. It’s more than $1,000 taken off the top of the movement.”
ANSWER faced a similar problem after the antiwar rally in March, when the rule regarding propane permits was reinterpreted so that a base charge, once applied to an entire event, was now charged of each concessionaire – quadrupling the overall cost. ANSWER pleaded its case against this new reading of the law and was granted a one-time reprieve. But Schmidt says none of the SFFD’s paperwork backs up a need to charge so much money.
“They kept on saying over and over again, ‘You guys are making money on this,’ ” Schmidt said. “But it’s an administrative fee to make sure we’re not setting anything on fire. It’s essentially a tax. It’s a deceitful form of politics and part of what’s changing the demographic of the city.”
The Outdoor Events Coalition, which represents more than 25 events in the city, agrees and has been meeting with city officials to hash out another interim solution for this year, as well as a long-term plan for financial sustainability for all parties.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Robbie Kowal, a coalition leader and organizer of the North Beach Jazz Festival. But he’s still concerned about what he and the coalition see as a continuing trend.
“The city is changing in some way. It’s becoming a culture of complaint. There’s this whole idea you can elect yourself into a neighborhood organization, you can invent your own constituency, and the bureaucracy has to take you seriously. Neighborhood power can be so effective in fighting against a Starbucks, but when it’s turned around and used to kill an indigenous part of that neighborhood, like its local street fair, that’s an abuse of that neighborhood power.”
Black Rock Arts Foundation, the San Francisco public art nonprofit that grew out of Burning Man, has enjoyed a successful and symbiotic partnership with the Newsom administration, placing well-received temporary artwork in Hayes Green, Civic Center Plaza, and the Embarcadero.
So when BRAF, the Neighborhood Parks Council, the city’s Department of the Environment, and several community groups decided several months ago to collaborate on a trio of new temporary art pieces, most people involved thought they were headed for another kumbaya moment. Then one of the projects hit a small but vocal pocket of resistance.
A group of artists from the Finch Mob and Rebar collectives are now at work on the Panhandle band shell, a performance space for nonamplified acoustic music and other performances that is made from the hoods of 75 midsize sedans. The idea is to promote the recycling and reuse of materials while creating a community gathering spot for arts appreciation.
Most neighborhood groups in the area like the project, and 147 individuals have written letters of support, versus the 17 letters that have taken issue with the project’s potential to draw crowds and create noise, litter, graffiti, congestion, and a hangout for homeless people.
But the opposition has been amplified by members of the Panhandle Residents Organization Stanyan Fulton (PROSF), which runs one of the most active listservs in the city, championing causes ranging from government sunshine to neighborhood concerns. The group, with support from Sup. Ross Mirkarimi’s staff, has delayed the project’s approval and thus placed its future in jeopardy (installation was scheduled to begin next month).
“My main concern would be that this is a very narrow strip of land that is bordered by homes on both sides,” said neighbor Maureen Murphy, who has complained about the project to the city and online through the PROSF. “My fear is that there is going to be amplification and more people and litter.”
The debate was scheduled to be heard by the Rec and Park Commission on April 19 but was postponed to May 3 because of the controversy. Nonetheless, Newsom showed up at the last hearing to offer his support.
“Rare do I come in front of committee, but I wanted to underscore … the partnership we’ve had with Black Rock Arts Foundation. It’s been a very successful one and one I want to encourage this commission to reinforce,” Newsom told the commission. “I think the opportunity exists for us … to take advantage of these partnerships and really bring to the forefront in people’s minds more temporary public art.”
Rachel Weidinger, who is handling the project for BRAF, said the organizers have been very sensitive to public input, neighborhood concerns, environmental issues, and the impacts of the project, at one point changing sites to one with better drainage. And she’s been actively telling opponents that the project won’t allow amplified music or large gatherings (those of 25 or more will require a special permit). But she said that there’s little they can do about those who simply don’t want people to gather in the park.
“We are trying to activate park space with temporary artwork,” she said. “Guilty as charged.”
Yet any activated public space – whether a street closed for a fair or a march, a park turned into a concert space, or a vacant storefront turned into a nightclub – is bound to generate a few critics. The question for San Francisco now is how to balance NIMBY desires and bureaucratic needs with a broader concern for facilitating fun in the big city.
“Some people have the idea that events and nightlife are an evil to be restricted,” Wiener said. But his resolution is intended as “a cultural statement about what kind of city we want to live in.”