Bar wars

SoMa homeowners fight the reopening of a rock 'n' roll gay bar and renew the neighborhood's old NIMBY-versus-nightlife fight

For the owners of the Hole in the Wall Saloon, the plan was simple: move their popular South of Market gay bar out of its dingy and dilapidated quarters to a much better spot around the corner. With numerous bars and nightclubs already along the stretch once known as the gay miracle mile, they assumed their place would fit right in.

But SoMa is changing — and the bar's new neighbors in the increasingly residential district are using every regulatory trick in the book to block the move. Another bar, they say, is one too many.

The Hole in the Wall's current location on Eighth Street frequently lives up to the place's modest-sounding name. The plumbing stops up. The patched floor sags in places. And the bar tilts at an unnatural angle. Co-owners Joe Banks and John Gardiner, who are life as well as business partners, spent years seeking a new space for their eclectic, art-filled taproom. Last year they thought they had found an ideal spot a block and a half away on Folsom, between Dore and 10th streets.

At today's prices, the building was a bargain — only $1.2 million. After making sure that the space, a former dance studio, was zoned to allow for a bar, Banks and Gardiner hired a local design-build firm to renovate the building. They hoped to open the new location by April 15, the bar's 13th anniversary.

Now they just hope to open.

In early December project manager Jeff Matt was working on the build-out of the new space when a man named Jim Meko stopped by and asked him to give a letter to the owners. The letter, obtained by the Guardian, is on letterhead for the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force. The task force, which Meko chairs, is advising the Planning Department on a new zoning plan for South of Market.

The letter was a copy of a five-month-old missive Meko had addressed to the real estate agent representing the building's sellers. It warns that if the property were sold to someone who wanted to open a bar, the buyers could face "obstacles" such as protests to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and petitions to the Planning Commission.

Silvana Messing, the agent to whom the letter is addressed, told us she never received it. The agent representing Gardiner and Banks as buyers, who asked not to be identified by name, claims he didn't see the letter either. But if he had gotten it before the sale, he said, "I probably would have advised [Gardiner and Banks] not to buy the place."

Meko, who lives around the corner from the Hole in the Wall's new location, told us Banks and Gardiner "tend to live right on the edge of the law" as bar owners. He charged that the place used DJs without the proper entertainment permits and that there have been reports of drug dealing and nudity on the bar's premises.

Gardiner admitted that he and Banks have employed DJs in the past but says they did not know that a DJ requires a special permit: "We thought an entertainment license was for places with live bands.... When we found out, we stopped it." Banks and Gardiner denied that drug dealing takes place at the bar. As for nudity, several Hole in the Wall regulars recalled a time in the mid-'90s when patrons occasionally drank in the buff, but they told us such behavior died down long ago.

Officer Rose Meyer, the San Francisco Police Department's permit officer at Southern Station, gave the bar and its owners glowing reviews. Referring to Gardiner in particular, Meyer told us, "Southern Station would have no objection to him operating [at the new location]. I don't foresee there being any problems."

"He has always been responsible" in the past, she said.

Meko claims the letter wasn't meant to stir up opposition to the bar's move. Instead, he said, he was simply trying to warn Gardiner and Banks about the simmering antinightlife attitude among SoMa residents.

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