Planning bureaucracy runs amok, picks porn over a churchI have to pass along this article from the Wall Street Journal's offbeat front-page center column, which reveals the dark comedy of out-of-control city planning bureaucracies, a recent topic on this blog here and here (highlights mine).
Classic. Next time somebody tells you planning and zoning will protect their neighborhoods, go ahead and trot out this little story in the "be careful what you wish for..." department.
SAN FRANCISCO -- When the National Guard left this city's historic State Armory and Arsenal building in 1975, the big Moorish castle fell into disrepair. Today, it has a controversial new lease on life.
Over the years, developers suggested turning the 1914 building, which is a mile from City Hall on the edge of the Mission District, into a church, storage space or an apartment complex. But proposals kept getting shot down, many of them falling victim to the city's powerful Planning Department and a thicket of zoning rules. Developers joked that the 200,000-square-foot Armory, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was cursed.
It turns out there was an easy way to preserve the Armory that doesn't run afoul of San Francisco's planners: make pornography there. In December, Peter Acworth, chief executive of the Internet porn company Kink.com, bought the landmark building for $14.5 million. Last week, Kink began shooting bondage films at the site, and the Planning Department doesn't have a problem with that.
The Armory is also zoned for "heavy commercial" use. Real-estate developers need special permission to build, say, condos or a church. Making films -- even dirty movies -- is OK. Tim Frye, a city planner who helps oversee the Mission neighborhood, says he found no reason to block the sale of the Armory to Kink. "Film production is a very sympathetic use" of the building, he says. "What happens in there is a private matter."
Mr. Acworth's fait accompli has now sparked a heated debate over San Francisco's real-estate planning maze. Developers complain that outdated rules make it a nightmare for mainstream businesses to build in the most desirable parts of the city. Nonprofit groups gripe that planners are so focused on economic growth that the city sacrifices affordable housing. Some merchants say San Francisco's government cares only about its wealthier neighborhoods and lets just about anyone enter the Mission, a formerly low-income area that has lately filled with bars, restaurants and young hipster residents. Mission District activists are planning a protest this week.
The flap has drawn in the mayor, Gavin Newsom. Last week, Mr. Newsom announced plans to hold a community meeting to discuss use of the Armory and revisit city-planning rules. "I'm not going to moralize it, but I don't think this is the appropriate place" for a porn film studio, says the mayor, who recently admitted to having an affair with his re-election campaign manager's wife. "This is a city with a housing crisis, and now here we are with an adult studio near schools?"
Amit Ghosh, director of the city's Planning Department, has publicly said, "The planning code...is not really worried with moral propriety."
Mr. Acworth says he was surprised things went so smoothly for Kink at the Planning Department. "It's kind of funny that it's porn that has got everyone thinking" about how the planning rules should change, he adds.