Can new housing coexist with nightlife in western SoMa? A rezoning debate around the 11th Street Corridor heats up
The Western South of Market area is ground zero for the city's War on Fun, a place where nightlife often comes into conflict with residential expectations, particularly on the raucous 300 block of 11th Street and, to a lesser degree, Folsom Street's old "miracle mile" of predominantly gay bars.
As the city's Planning Department and its development community looks to accommodate another 4,000 homes for 10,000 new residents on less than 300 acres of Western SoMa — most of it along Folsom Street between 7th and 13th streets — that potential for conflict could grow in the coming years as funky old buildings give way to shiny new stacks of expensive condos.
And efforts to sort it out may hinge on the future of a 105-year old purple building.
After nearly eight years of work by a unique citizen-led task force, the Western SoMa Community Plan is now before the Board of Supervisors, with the Land Use Committee set to hold its first hearing on Feb. 25. Despite dozens of task force meetings seeking to strike the right balance between residential and entertainment interests, the plan is still being tweaked.
When the Planning Commission approved the plan and some related projects on Dec. 6, it followed King Solomon's approach of cutting the 11th Street baby in half. The commission heeded the recent recommendation of the nightlife community and District 6 Sup. Jane Kim to modify the plan to prohibit new residential development on the 11th Street block where tipsy visitors to Slim's, DNA Lounge, and other big clubs clog the sidewalks every weekend. But it also voted to grandfather in a 24-unit residential project at 340 11th Street, which everyone now involved in closed-door negotiations simply calls "the purple building," a two-story masonry structure built in 1907 that is awaiting demolition.
The building houses light industrial businesses and is the former home of Universal Electric, whose owner, Tony Lo, wants to develop the property. Along with architect John Goldman, Lo submitted a residential project application in 2005, only to have it placed on hold pending adoption of the Western SoMa Community Plan.
"It was well along when the Planning Department put the project on hold," Goldman told us.
City officials and even many of the nightlife advocates say they sympathize with the long wait that Lo and Goldman have endured, even if many oppose housing on the site and have been urging Lo to find another use for the site, such as an office building.
"They would have no idea what they're getting into until that first Saturday night," nightlife advocate Terrance Alan said of the would-be residents of the building, envisioning a young couple who had only visited during daytime hours trying push a baby stroller past the throngs of club-goers. Alan took part in recent meetings Kim facilitated with Lo and Goldman, and Alan told us, "There was, for the first time, a very frank discussion about the problems that owners would experience and the pressure they would put on clubs in the area."
For example, just one neighbor of Slim's — a popular live music venue on the block owned by singer Boz Scaggs — has waged a relentless campaign that has forced temporary shutdowns and cost the club more than $750,000 in mediation costs, Alan said, despite the club's sound buffering and general compliance with local codes.
Alan said that it's simply unthinkable to add more than two dozen new homeowners to that busy block in a condominium building that only allows access on 11th Street. Alan is hopeful for a negotiated compromise with Lo, something that Kim told us she also thinks is likely.
"I'm hoping we can come to a consensus of the property owners and business owners on 11th street, including the purple building," Kim said, echoing Alan's point that, "Just one resident can really shut down a business and hurt its financing."