Planning Commission hears Kink.com case
by Liz Highleyman
Members of the local alternative sexuality and Latino communities turned out in force at City Hall last week for an informational hearing before the San Francisco Planning Commission to discuss the purchase of the long-vacant state Armory building by Kink.com, which operates a dozen bondage and fetish porn Web sites.
Kink.com CEO Peter Acworth, who started the company in 1997, purchased the building at Mission and 14th streets from the previous owner, a commercial developer, for $14.5 million in late December 2006.
Though the change of ownership was by all accounts legal, some local community members formed an opposition group, the Mission Armory Community Collective, and pressured city officials to rescind the sale.
"That is not the appropriate place for Kink.com. It's in the hub of a residential community," said MACC member Sam Ruiz. "It's not OK to promote acts of degradation and violence. We don't want that kind of stuff here."
Responding to the opposition, Mayor Gavin Newsom asked the Planning Commission to review the change of ownership. "While not wanting to be prudish, the fact that Kink.com will be located in the proximity to a number of schools give[s] us pause," he said in a press release last month.
Although the Armory building counts schools, churches, and a senior housing facility among its neighbors, the site is zoned for commercial and industrial use. Prior to the sale, zoning administrator Larry Badiner gave a letter of determination approving a request by Armory Studios LLC to use the site for "independent and NC-17 films." Though not aware at the time of the nature of the company's productions, he said that did not matter, since content was "a free-speech issue."
Formerly a military induction and training center, the Armory stood empty since the National Guard vacated the 190,000-square-foot building in 1975. Various plans for the site – including market-rate housing, dot-com office space, and a rehabilitation clinic – fell through due to community opposition and the building's logistical difficulties, including narrow windows and lack of elevators.
A landmark that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the structure may not be significantly altered. The building is a kinkster's dream, with a drill yard, horse stables, and large communal latrines. Since Kink.com intends to use the Armory in its present state, it was not required to notify neighbors, obtain a change of use permit, or perform seismic retrofitting or disability access upgrades.
An overflow crowd of about 200 people attended the March 8 hearing, and 50 speakers offered public comment supporting or opposing Kink.com's purchase.
"San Francisco has a history of defending civil liberties, and venues like this are necessary to keep the fabric of the city vibrant," said Tad Glauthier, founder of Supper Club SF. "The fetish community is seen with the same level of suspicion and lack of understanding as the gay and lesbian community was 20 years ago."
Many Kink.com supporters made the point that proponents of alternative sexuality are part of the local community.
"This change is good for the Armory, good for the Mission, and good for San Francisco," said longtime Mission resident Rob Jellinghaus. "This is our city, too."
Responding to complaints that the use is not suitable for a "family-friendly" neighborhood, speakers said children would not be aware of what goes on in the fortress-like edifice. Prior to the move, Kink.com operated out of a smaller building at Mission and 5th streets with no community complaints.
Others noted that Kink.com will give the neighborhood an economic boost, provide jobs, and bring the city much-needed tax revenue. Eventually, the company hopes to attract mainstream film production companies to rent its facilities.
"Having a responsible business versus an empty shell is a positive change for the neighborhood," said Steve Bower of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, an advocacy group for BDSM and polyamory aficionados.
Most Kink.com opponents focused on the lack of community input prior to the sale.
"This is about someone with money coming into a poor, vulnerable community and giving no voice to the people of that community," said local resident Alejandra Mojica. "It's disrespectful to the people of the community, to our culture as Latinos, and to the children who are going to school right around the corner."
Acworth said he did not notify the community in advance because he was prohibited by a verbal non-disclosure agreement from discussing the sale before it was finalized.
Only a few speakers dwelt on the moral issue of pornography, claiming that Kink.com's productions are violent and the company exploits women.
"What Kink.com does is not porn, it's glorification of sexual torture," said Robert Soriano, who lives three blocks from the Armory. "People will protest torture at Abu Ghraib [prison in Iraq], but not sexualized torture here in San Francisco."
Responding to charges that Kink.com provides "dead-end" jobs, supporters countered that the company offers competitive pay and benefits including health insurance and a 401(k) plan.
"Peter really cares about his models," said Lisa Mackie, a Mission resident and hotline volunteer with Community United Against Violence who started as a Kink.com model and was later hired as a production assistant and videographer.
Acworth expressed his willingness to work with the community and has applied to join the Mission Merchants Association. Vowing to be a good neighbor, company employees have cleaned up graffiti, fixed broken windows, and installed outdoor lighting on the crime-ridden corner.
Last week's informational hearing was intended as a forum for community input, and the Planning Commission does not expect to make any immediate decisions about the building's fate.
Though emotions ran high on both sides, commissioners took a measured stance, affirming the legality of the change of ownership.
"I'm generally in favor of free enterprise and allowing someone to take part in legal activities in a building they own," said Commissioner Michael Antonini.
Commissioner Christina Olague said she was initially ambivalent about the sale, since she didn't want to disrespect community concerns, but was disturbed by the moralistic tone of some of the opposition. "I moved to San Francisco because I didn't embrace the Republican Christian fundamentalist values of the Central Valley," she said, urging Kink.com supporters and neighborhood opponents to engage in further dialogue.