City spanks Power Exchange

Sex club grapples with bureaucracy and opponents to open in the Tenderloin

"Power Exchange is currently closed due to unfair Fire Department restrictions," states the message on the telephone answering machine of the embattled sex club, which plans to open — and possibly reignite its battle with neighbors and city officials — as soon as this weekend, Oct. 11.

Owner Michael Powers had hoped to open Oct. 2 after being shut down for alleged Fire Code violations on Sept. 18, shortly after opening for business in its new home at 34 Mason St. in the Tenderloin. But things are taking longer than Powers expected after he failed another city inspection Oct. 1. The seemingly endless paperwork from the various city agencies and the bewildering bureaucratic process are causing Powers to lose money — and patience — with each passing weekend.

Power Exchange isn't just a venerable sex club, it's a popular gathering place for the transgender and BDSM communities and a hub for unfettered sexual fun of all types, drawing customers from all over the Bay Area. Yet along with its strong following, the club has garnered significant opposition that recently forced its closure.

For 13 years, business boomed at the previous location at 74 Otis St. But Powers' landlord and business partner went into bankruptcy, so Powers tried to reopen on Gough Street. But the Brady Street Neighborhood Coalition mobilized an opposition campaign with flyers and phone calls and the lease was terminated. Powers says the closure wasn't because of the neighbors, but because the area had undergone a zoning change, making it difficult to acquire necessary permits.

So Powers found the location at 34 Mason and claims he was told by the Planning Department that it had previously housed Crash nightclub with an assembly permit already in place, and that no conditional use permit hearings were required. As far as he knew, Power Exchange was good to go.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle starting agitating against Power Exchange, quoting opponents and linking the club's opening to incidents at the Pink Diamond nightclub and Grand Liquor, two Tenderloin businesses plagued with violence and liquor license issues. In the Sept. 12 article, "Backlash Against Sex Club in Tenderloin," news columnist C.W. Nevius wrote, "The club's workers just moved in, opened for business, and apparently assumed that no one would say a word. They are in for a surprise."

Yet a subsequent news article ("Sex Club's Presence Raises Concern," Sept. 17) cited zoning administrator Lawrence Badiner from the Planning Department and Department of Public Health spokesperson Jim Soos as indicating Power Exchange was a legal use for the site. "Even though the club operates from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., it does not need an after-hours permit or a public hearing before the Entertainment Commission, nor does it need a permit from the health department because it does not sell food or alcohol or operate whirlpool tubs," reporter Meredith May wrote, although she indicated that city officials were looking for ways to heed the concerns of some neighbors and stop the club from opening.

Powers was preparing to open when he was told that the building did not, in fact, have a permit for assembly. Fire Department spokesperson Mindy Talmage claims, "Crash never obtained a permit to operate. Nothing. So they were in there illegally."

Fire Department inspector Kathy Harold met with Powers in early August and gave him a list of improvements to acquire the proper permit. He completed all but two, and had a work order for the remaining items. Harold told Powers they could issue a conditional use permit, allowing him to open.

Powers eagerly awaited Harold's follow-up visit on Sept. 16 when she was to issue the conditional use permit. But Harold was, unexpectedly, joined by inspector Donal Duffy from the Building Department.

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