Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Planning bureaucracy runs amok, picks porn over a church

I 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).

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 Developers complain that outdated rules make it a nightmare for mainstream businesses to build in the most desirable parts of the city.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.

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.


At 6:42 PM, February 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Slight misnomer in your blog title. It's neither the Planning Department nor the bureaucracy surrounding the PD that's "run amok," but left-wing activists in the neighborhood. Activists have fought developers' plans to change the building into residential condos or other commercial uses. They wanted additional "community benefits" (read: lots of additional low-income housing, a community center, etc.) to be footed by the developer. Multiple plans fell through because of community "activists."

WSJ's not really doing a good job conveying that (if you read local press, you'd get a better sense of the story). Planners have been generally agnostic as to the use of the parcel, except as to defer to "community activists" who cry gentrification anytime any developer wants to come in and build condos on the land. Planners haven't really "picked" porn over a church -- the porn just came in because of (greedy [ironic]) activists.

Aside from the headline-catching aspect, it's not terribly bad that Kink has decided to locate in that beautiful building. Nobody knows when the company's filming (activists were surprised to learn that two films had been already produced there in the past two weeks), and they've done an excellent job cleaning up what was a dilapidated site. Housing is probably a better use in terms of citywide need (and likely what the market would have "chosen"), but as long as planning and activism exist in San Francisco, stuff like this will happen.

At 8:36 PM, February 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A good point. NIMBY activists often become a big problem when they know there's a specific political board they can influence (planning/ zoning/ permitting). Houston, by having pretty cut-and-dried permitting (meet the rules, and they really can't deny you) reduces a lot of the NIMBYism except for the most extreme cases.

At 1:39 AM, February 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very informative article. Thanks, Tory.

At 10:19 AM, February 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It sounds to me like it goes beyond zoning. Basically a problem any time a bureaucracy or politically-influenced board has excessive power to dictate what a land owner can do with their property.

At 7:19 PM, February 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So a zoning board in San Fransisco allows some sicko to use a building to shoot porno films, and that means zoning doesn't work?

I'll write a letter to city council here in College Station and let them know that, by having zoning, they've made the city vulnerable to sickos shooting porn films.

Classic scare tactic.

At 9:38 PM, February 21, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> didn't it actually fail to have "excessive power?"

It stopped a church, apt complex, and other uses - so this is what it got. Had they not forbidden those uses - i.e. abused it's excessive power - it would have gotten what I think most people would agree is a better use via the plain old free market.

At 8:21 AM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A porn studio (I would think) generates the same level of activity (hence congestion) as a non-porn film business, which presumably is OK. The neighbors admitted they didn't realize it was already open.

Churches cause huge parking problems on Sundays, and they don't pay property or other taxes, resulting in a relative drain on city finances.

I'd rather live across from a porn studio than a church (or a school). It seems this is a moralistic argument cloaked in planning. Discuss.

At 10:06 AM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I'd rather live across from a church than a porn studio, for sure. But I'm not sure how the "plain old free market" would ensure that a church, rather than a porn studio, would have ended up there.

The point of zoning boards, Tory, is that it gives people a chance to determine the shape of their own neighborhood. If the citizens of San Francisco were more religious-minded, I'm sure a church would have had no problem being built. At any rate, we know nothing about this church or what it entailed, or how feasible their plan was.

I know you think that letting people have their say allows "activists" to take control. Is it any different in democracy? Aren't the people who become most *active* in the governing process those who are most passionate about the issues? Look at the early stages of any election, and you will see that it is activists who determined what the people would eventually decide.

And the fact is, you yourself are an activist. You have more influence on the future of Houston's development than the average citizen, precisely because you care more. Every week you post horror stories of what could happen if Houston ever adopts zoning, because in the event that somebody ever proposes zoning for this city (which nobody, to my knowledge, has in the past decade), you want people to make the right decision.

The nice thing, though, is that at the end of the day, the people of this city have that decision. As of right now, nobody in incorporated Houston has any influence on what could be built in their neighborhood.

At 11:42 AM, February 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Not true. The most problematic developments do often face pressure to make changes, and often do. There is also a very easy way to shape the changes in your neighborhood: get people to agree to deed restrictions. I think it only takes 75%. But that requires it be in the *real* interest of the majority of land owners, not just the desires of a few vocal activists.

At 1:15 PM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's be clear here: the bureaucracy itself was fairly agnostic as to the use of the parcel. It was (and still is) originally zoned as a light industrial/commercial building. Developers came to the planning commission multiple times to change the zone -- primarily for condos. Generally, San Francisco planners tend to allow zoning changes for residential, especially for dilapidated eyesore buildings (they're not dumb as to the housing crunch in the City). However, planners tend to defer to "community input," a result of the Jane Jacobsing of planning. Community input in San Francisco (like most cities) is a bit of skewed toward the left. Input boards tend to consist of community activists and individuals who have a bit of time on their hands. This is especially the case in the Mission District, where a number of powerful "anti-gentrification" activists put up roadblocks toward new market-rate housing unless huge, huge concessions are made. These concessions are generally development of community centers, below market-rate housing (sometimes to the tune of 40 or 50% of the market rate units!). It makes development in the city extremely hard, especially in terms of financing. Many of the original developer plans fell through because of these concessions.

So, the parcel and the armory on the parcel remained vacant, still zoned for commercial use. Someone found a good commercial use for the building (really, I mean, moral bullshit aside, the employees are well paid, the building has been cleaned up -- it's no different than an office building, except that the windows are likely blacked out).

When your job (funded often times by taxpayer dollars!), 24/7, is to lobby against "gentrification" in your community -- yeah, I think that's a problem. They tend to drown out other voices in the community, especially the voices of the people who have full-time jobs.

At 1:18 PM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it were in the interests of the majority, it would only take 51%. Deed restrictions are problematic for a number of reasons, the main one of which is the way neighborhoods are defined - can people in Garden Oaks, for instance, pass deed restrictions that would affect North Shepherd?

There is the possibility of applying pressure outside the political process, but this is only really a hope for rich people in rich neighborhoods. Drive around all the areas in this city where once nice neighborhoods have gotten trashed up by junkyards, chain link fences, public storage, etc. If you could empathize with the residents of those neighborhoods for one moment, you might lose your sunny view of how wonderful and "vibrant" things are in unregulated Houston.

At 2:07 PM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clarence Young: "...below market-rate housing (sometimes to the tune of 40 or 50% of the market rate units!)."

Geez. No wonder housing is so expensive in SF. If I'd had to buy a 2 BR, 1 ba house for the neighbors when i was buying the 4 BR, 2 ba house I'm living in now, I don't think I could have done it.

Here's hoping Houston never decides to "help the downtrodden" with other people's money.

At 2:08 PM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post title, btw. Although misleading, it probably generated a few extra clickthroughs.

At 2:12 PM, February 22, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


Tory may be an "activist" in the sense that he's politically active, but what he preaches is far more benign than what comes from typical activists because he's anti-busibody.

I understand the urge people have to control their neighborhoods, but it all often degenrates into a bunch of self-satisfied left-wingers stopping virtually any new development, especially if it happens to be from a major retailer. They also tend to kill the development of new housing, since they insist on micromanaging every blasted project.

When people want community input in new development because they want to enhance their property values, I generally sympathize but don't think it's a good enough reason to violate a person's property rights provided that they're otherwise complying with the law (particularly nuisance law) and keeping the land productive. Still, I do see some argument there; it's just a weak one.

However, what you're seeing in San Francisco isn't people trying to protect property values -- they're trying to promote a social agenda, and they're doing so without any cost to themselves. This is why you have neighborhoods where major retailers have serious difficulty moving in because left-wing residents don't like major retailers. It's why you don't have housing for middle income people -- because the insistence upon providing low-income units raises the costs of remaining housing stock and keeps many projects from even getting off the ground.

I don't see any justification for this. It's essentially socialist land-use control -- various hard-nosed activists decide on everything even though the effects on them are marginal. They aren't complaining about major impacts on property values; they're talking about psychic harm and other nonsense that doesn't justify telling somebody what they can and can't do with their property.

At 2:46 PM, February 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, there's always the "tyranny of the majority" problem, so 75% seems like a pretty reasonable hurdle vs. 51%. And normal contract law would say 100%, so, again, 75% seems like a pretty reasonable compromise.

And "poor, junked up" neighborhoods happen in every city in America, zoning or not. The lack of zoning is what often allows them to get redeveloped/renewed affordably. Developments that truly trash land values should be generally stoppable with a combination of deed restrictions and nuisance laws.

I think Owen's well thought-out comment really nails it.

At 6:08 PM, February 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Junked-up neighborhoods happen more often here than just about anywhere else, and anyone who hasn't been inured from a lifetime of living here or doesn't work for a conservative think tank knows it.

There are a hundred places in Houston where you can clearly see how different things would be if we had some land-use regulations, but one of my favorite is driving north through Spring Valley north of I-10 on Bingle. You're driving along through this nice, green area, and then suddenly you see a "Houston City Limit" sign. At that moment - just as you pass the sign - the green is gone. What you see instead is crap: gravel parking lots, chain link fences, junky buildings. No more green anywhere. Welcome to Houston.

The junked up quality of what you see there is, in fact, the norm around Houston. It's what visitors tend to remember about this city - just an overall feeling of disarray and slovenliness. I try to bring visitors to the nice spots, the areas where some sense of orderliness prevails, but the sense is always there that these are the exceptions, and chaos is the rule.

It will not be the end of freedom and the American way of life if we tell people they can't built convenience stores on Heights Blvd., or gas stations on Memorial Dr. (as the Villages did, to great effect), or parking garages on Main St. Every other city has these types of restrictions - they make for beautiful urban boulevards - and very few people in those places feel that they live in a socialist society, or are under siege by left-wing activists.

At 9:03 AM, February 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are you perhaps conflating zoning with other forms of land use regulation? I don't know of any cities that have a designation for "zoned non-junky". And I don't know of any great middle-class neighborhood in any city that doesn't have it's share of junkiness.

Oh, and why did you lump public storage and chain-link fences in with junkyards? Lots of people in my neighborhood rent space in nearby storage units. And we had a chain link fence in our (front!) yard (in Dallas!) when I was a kid. What regulation do you envision that would keep things non-junky enough for your tastes but still let nice, respectable people like me, my neighbors, and my mom get on with our lives?


At 1:39 PM, February 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was referring to businesses that put up chain-link fences around their property in the middle of otherwise nice thoroughfares. I'm sorry if I offended you, your neighbors, and your mom.

As for public storage, I don't have a problem with the fact that it exists, but I think there are certain places where it is not appropriate (i.e. if someone were to put it on Heights or Montrose), and I think that, in other areas, neighborhoods would do well to impose some kind of setback, or rules on color. Nothing says eyesore like a bunch of loud orange, metal-sided buildings hugging the side of an otherwise nice road.

At 3:21 PM, February 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for fun, I made this map of one of the zoning ordinances in Houston, the Sexually Oriented Business Free Zone, which encompasses 41% of the land in the city (1500 feet from any church or school).

While most people would probably agree with the intent of this law, it is a form of zoning. How is this not "excessive power to dictate what a land owner can do with their property?" Is it because you agree with the social activism happening in this case?

In the map, green areas are SOB Free and blue is the rest of the City of Houston, where free market porn reigns supreme.

This is meant just as a little example. There are countless other regulations in Houston that pervert the market much more than a traditional zoning board does. I'll try to illustrate some of those later. Here's a good short description of Houston's market perverting land use regulation: http://www.planetizen.com/node/109

It's very important for people to realize that what Tory is attacking here is not being advocated by any of the people working on doing better planning in the City of Houston and the sort of heavy handed land use regulation he speaks of is currently alive and well in Houston.

At 3:49 PM, February 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Nuisance ordinances are reasonable, although the 1500 feet in this case is probably excessive. And I agree that many of the items cited in the essay you link should be loosened up. I never said Houston was perfect - but we should take a pretty good starting framework (deed restrictions, nuisance laws) and make it better, rather than giving up and going to zoning or land use boards.

> is not being advocated by any of the people working on doing better planning in the City of Houston

Good to hear it.

> the sort of heavy handed land use regulation he speaks of is currently alive and well in Houston.

While there are specific ways our regs could be improved (see above), there's pretty much no way you can characterize them as "heavy handed" relative to just about any other part of the country.


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