Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Planning is hard work

I have to return to Monday's blog theme because this episode too good to pass up (below, from today's WSJ). Some of us have been arguing that top-down city planning is an impossible task ("fool's errand", "fatal conceit", etc.).

But nothing beats this example from San Francisco (!) with it's "thicket of zoning rules" (below), managing to keep all proposed re-uses of its historic abandoned armory building stalled -- but not being able to stop it from becoming an internet porn studio (Kink.com, specifically).

No Condos, Please: Old Armory Finds New Life in Porn
Other Plans Fall Victim To San Francisco Zoning; Fears of 'Dark Spirits'

By VAUHINI VARAFebruary 7, 2007; Page A1

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.

Mr. Acworth says city officials were especially pleased that he planned to use the Armory as is, without making big changes to its interior. That way, he didn't have to go before San Francisco's Landmarks Board for approval. In fact, the building's very details -- the dungeon-like boiler room, shadowy rifle range and wet basement -- appealed to Mr. Acworth.

"It's an authentic castle, whereas we had been building fake castles all this time" for our films, Mr. Acworth says.

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?" .....