SF to allow Big Wheel event after all

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By Steven T. Jones

Under pressure from the community, the Mayor’s Office, and Sup. Sophie Maxwell, organizers of this Sunday’s Bring Your Own Big Wheel event say the San Francisco Police Department has reversed its position and will allow the event to happen as long as organizers promise to apply for permits next year, which they have agreed to do.

“This could be the start of something really cool,” said Tom Price, who has been lobbying City Hall on behalf of the event, whose organizers have reached out to neighbors, rented porta-potties, stressed responsibility, and promised a vigorous cleanup effort.

As we reported yesterday
, the SFPD had taken a hard line on this increasingly popular annual event. Capt. John Loftus told organizers, “We will barricade the street and you won't be able to go two feet anywhere on that block. If downtown wants to come up with another solution, fine.”

But downtown apparently intervened. Earlier in the day, I spoke with top mayoral adviser Mike Farrah, who had been working with Price to reach a resolution. “These events are important to San Francisco. I think they are vital to the foundation of our economy, not to mention, they’re fun,” Farrah, who has become something of a City Hall liaison to the Burning Man community, told me. “And I think there’s been an effort to try to be responsible.”

When he said that, the two sides seemed to still be at an impasse. Farrah said he had offered event organizers the expedited opportunity to apply for permits this year, but they refused to do so on principle. The two main organizers, Jared Hirsch and Jon Brumit, had each told me yesterday that it was important for the event to remain free and without corporate sponsorship, which would make it tough to pay for cost of permits.

The How Weird Street Faire, for example, is being asked to pay the SFPD almost $10,000 up front for police services that they don’t even want (I asked Farrah about that event and he said he didn’t have enough details to comment, but that he was open to working with organizers to find a solution).

But Price said that part of the deal offered by City Hall and Capt. Loftus was that, “They’re going to work with us to minimize the cost of the permits as much as possible.” He presented the offer to Hirsch around 5 p.m. today, and Hirsch decided to accept and write a letter of intent to apply for next year.

“We’ve already had several offers of people to step forward and help us raise the funds for next year,” Hirsch said, offering his thanks to all of those who supported the event this year. “Common sense came through and the message that came from the Mayor’s Office is we support events like this.” In fact, Price told us, "We will hold the first Big Wheel for Mayor Newsom if he can make it. He gets first tracks."

Nobody knows exactly what flipped the decision. As late as 4 p.m., the SFPD issued a written response to questions and pressure from the Guardian that said, in part, “The primary Mission of the San Francisco Police Department is PUBLIC SAFETY. That said, we strongly encourage the promoters to comply with the applicable policies and laws. There are processes available and in place that ensure public safety. Unfortunately difficulties arise when the process is not complied with. As a matter of policy,we do not discuss deployment options for unplanned events. San Francisco is a pro event city and we have shown ourselves to be an event friendly agency, however there is a process that is required for each event.”

But the SFPD never did answer our questions about what laws someone riding a Big Wheel down the street is breaking. That’s now apparently become a moot point. Price said all the officials he dealt with acknowledged the organizers efforts. “Every person I spoke to in this said let’s find a way to make this work.”

The event -- which started nine years ago on Lombard Street and moved to North Beach before arriving at its current home on Potrero Hill -- begins at 4 p.m. at the top of Vermont Street. While Big Wheels will be the main mode of transportation, organizers say any vehicle that doesn't have rubber wheels may participate.

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