LGBT center in talks to open rooftop restaurant
by Matthew S. Bajko
San Francisco's LGBT Community Center has engaged a local land use attorney to examine rezoning the building to allow more commercial uses, including the possibility of a rooftop restaurant space, the Bay Area Reporter has learned.
Center officials have met in recent months with Gus Murad, the owner of the popular Mission rooftop bar and restaurant Medjool, about forming a partnership at the urging of District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty. The idea, said Dufty, is modeled after Delancey Street, the nonprofit provider of services to substance abusers that also operates a restaurant and several other businesses to generate revenue.
"While a deal isn't agreed to, what Gus has proposed is not only using an LGBT workforce through the center but revenue and profit-sharing for the center as well," said Dufty, reached in Puerto Vallarta where he was vacationing this week. "He had a unique idea about how to structure this."
Murad's spokesman, PJ Johnston, said the restaurateur was unavailable to comment for this story. Murad has been fighting efforts to close Medjool's rooftop space and recently won a months-long reprieve from having to shutter it due to a zoning controversy that has waged on for more than a year.
"Gus is a friend of the LGBT center and, as with the many nonprofits he is supportive of in the Mission District, he wants to be helpful in any way he can," Johnston wrote in an e-mail to the B.A.R.
In an e-mail sent by center Executive Director Rebecca Rolfe to one of Dufty's aides in December, obtained by the B.A.R. , she wrote that the supervisor "had connected us to Gus Murad, from Medjool restaurant to explore a potential partnership. Happily, those negotiations have been moving forward."
But in an interview this week Rolfe stressed that the center has not signed any deal with Murad to open a new restaurant in the building. She added that center officials have been in talks with up to five different entities interested in the center.
"We are evaluating the potential to bring in a commercial tenant to the first floor and or the fourth floor. There is the possibility of both," said Rolfe. "We have talked with a whole range of folks."
Rolfe said the aim is to find a suitable business that would not only add to the facility's bottom line but would advance its core mission of serving the LGBT community.
"We have not been deriving enough revenues from the building itself," said Rolfe. "We think there is definitely the possibility of finding strategic partnerships with for-profit businesses to bring more revenue into the center."
The center already has an LGBT workforce development program and a separate program aimed at helping transgender people find work, which both could benefit from having a full-service restaurant in the building, said Dufty.
"I am excited about the possibility to create an economic engine for the center and the community," said Dufty.
When the Market Street building first opened in March 2002, its backers had estimated that room rentals would cover its operating expenses. It soon became clear that financial model was infeasible, and center executives sought to partner with the city in launching its own government-funded programs.
"The center was founded on a notion it could rent rooms and somehow make enough money to support itself, but I don't think that is realistic," said Dufty, who is also trying to secure a city-backed loan to the center so it can restructure $3.15 million in debt from construction costs. "The center needs a source of revenue to support itself and bring down the debt it is carrying. I am just trying to be creative with options; I think people could support this."
While successful at securing various city and state funding, the center still is not generating enough money from use of the building to cover operating expenses. Rolfe said it cost $608,000 to run the center during the 2008-2009 fiscal year and that only $262,000 in revenue came from room rentals and tenants in the building. The remainder of the $346,000 was paid for using donations and corporate support.
"The building itself loses a significant amount of revenue," said Rolfe.
Currently, a ground floor space that was a cafe has been vacant since 2008. There is a small food prep area attached to the building's fourth floor ceremonial room, which has access to an outdoor terrace that faces downtown and toward the bay. Reconfiguring the space into an al fresco lounge and eatery would make the building "pop," said Dufty.
"Most observers feel the center could have more vibrancy at night," he said. A restaurant "would draw more people into the building."
This week the center finalized an agreement with Steven L. Vettel, an openly gay attorney who is a partner at Farella Braun and Martel, to work on a pro bono basis examining the zoning issues the center would need to address in order to move forward with any changes to the building.
Among the items on Vettel's to-do list, said Rolfe, are if an eatery would need to provide parking and what restrictions, if any, were placed on use of the ceremonial room when it was named after Andrew Spencer.
"We have a lot of different ideas. We don't know if any would be workable," said Rolfe, who hopes to have some answers to the zoning issues by April. "We are still really trying to assess this."