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Purported new SF gay bathhouse blocked by zoning issues

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According to Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's office, someone has expressed interest in opening a bathhouse near the gay-owned Eagle bar and parklet in the South of Market neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter
According to Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's office, someone has expressed interest in opening a bathhouse near the gay-owned Eagle bar and parklet in the South of Market neighborhood. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Nine months after San Francisco officials cleared the way for gay bathhouses to resume operations in the city, proprietors reportedly want to open such a business near the leather-themed Eagle Plaza parklet in the South of Market neighborhood. But their doing so requires city leaders changing the zoning in the area.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman disclosed the issues the bathhouse proprietor is facing during the Castro Merchants Association meeting September 2. He announced his intention of increasing the number of places in San Francisco where bathhouses, as well as bars, would be permitted.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, Mandelman spearheaded the legislative drive to once again legalize traditional gay bathhouses in San Francisco, which went into effect earlier this year. A prohibition against such businesses having locked rooms, enacted in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, was rescinded.

"We took care of the prohibition as a matter of the health code," Mandelman said. "What we didn't do was figure out the zoning code implications."

That's necessary now because would-be proprietors are interested in opening up bathhouses in the city, Mandelman announced.

"In January we heard a business wanted to open near The Eagle," said Mandelman, referring to the gay-owned bar at the intersection of 12th and Harrison streets that fronts the new public parklet built on a block of 12th Street. "What we're seeking for feedback is how folks would feel about that."

In a subsequent request for more information Mandelman aide Jacob Bintliff, a gay man who is a former city planning staffer, wouldn't tell the B.A.R. who the potential owners are out of deference to them.

Bintliff told the B.A.R. that when the prospective owners went to the planning department, it was ruled that a bathhouse falls under the category of adult business. Adult businesses are not allowed in most of the city, he said.

"Right now everything falls in the banner of adult business," Bintliff said. "In most of the Castro that is not allowed. It is starting with Civic Center/mid-Market, to the Financial District, toward the waterfront, but not in North Beach. It is also allowed in industrial areas of the Mission and Dogpatch."

There are three zoning categories: permitted, conditionally permitted, and not permitted. Conditional permission allows a business to open after a hearing and the opportunity for community feedback.

"It is conditionally permitted on part of Market [Street] from Church [Street] to Van Ness [Avenue], and other parts of the Mission and Dogpatch," Bintliff said.

Mandelman is seeking community feedback about where adult business zoning rules should be liberalized and whether statuses should be changed to permitted or conditionally permitted.

Former Castro Merchants president Daniel Bergerac, who identifies as a self-described "practicing homosexual," said he is supportive.

"When you talk to tourists in the Castro, the number one thing they ask for are the backrooms or the bathhouses," Bergerac said. "Number two — I'm concerned about the safety of our youth that use hookup apps."

Bintliff opined that the South of Market neighborhood — until 1984 the traditional epicenter of the city's bathhouses — would probably be more feasible for entrepreneurs to open up in. Nevertheless, Mandelman said that the closed 24 Hour Fitness at 2145 Market Street or even the old Pottery Barn at Market and Castro streets might make good locations.

San Francisco's bathhouse restrictions stemmed from a city lawsuit against the venues. In October 1984 a San Francisco Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order that shuttered nine gay bathhouses and sex clubs.

In late November of that year another judge lifted the restraining order but imposed new rules on how the bathhouses and sex clubs could operate. No longer could they rent private rooms, unless they secured a hotel license, and employees had to monitor the sexual behavior of patrons.

Bathhouse owners, however, refused to open their doors as the court heard challenges to the new rules. The judge hearing the court case at one point toughened his order and banned any sex from occurring in the bathhouses.

The legal case came to an end in 1989 when the city dismissed its lawsuit. By then the city's gay bathhouses were no more, but over the ensuing years sex clubs opened their doors. They did so without private rooms patrons can lock shut, as is typically found in gay bathhouses around the world.

Today, only one such business catering to queer and trans men exists in the city, Eros sex club on the 2000 block of Market Street near Dolores. It had been forced closed during most of the past 17 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic but earlier this summer reopened with new safety protocols required of patrons.

Bintliff also said that Mandelman's office has been in conversation with District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney's office, who represents SOMA.

Honey Mahogany, a trans queer nonbinary aide to Haney, told the B.A.R. that "we've been working with Supervisor Mandelman's office and we are generally supportive of this, but I don't want to give a more specific quote until I talk to Supervisor Haney."

Bob Goldfarb, a gay man who is the president of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District's board of directors, said he had not heard of the bathhouse plans.

"We haven't been contacted by anyone currently considering a bathhouse in SOMA," Goldfarb said. "However, we would be happy to talk to anyone considering such a project."

During the Castro Merchants meeting board member Dave Karraker, a gay man who co-owns a gym in the neighborhood with his partner, asked if now is a good time considering misleading reports last year that San Francisco was opening bathhouses "in the middle of a pandemic."

Replied Mandelman: "There was pretty nasty stuff about how we were opening up bathhouses in the middle of a pandemic — which we were not — but I don't think that should stop us. Just because the right is on the move everywhere from Kabul to Washington, D.C. doesn't mean we should stop trying to enact the right policies."

Bar zoning also restrictive
Bathhouses aren't the only businesses restricted by current zoning rules. Mandelman said that new bars are also not allowed in the Castro neighborhood — despite international recognition for its LGBTQ watering holes.

"All our existing bars are grandfathered in," Mandelman said. "Good for them, but an insurmountable barrier to new folks."

One of those new people is Suzie Jennings, who spoke to the merchants about how she wants to open a wine bar and "art and cultural space" in the old Unionmade location at 493 Sanchez Street on the corner with 18th Street.

"We'd have limited hours and probably open, at the latest, till 10," she said, adding she is "partnering with my partner and another dyke" on the project.

"It'd be nice to have something in the community, especially for women," Jennings said.

To that end, Mandelman also wants community opinions about loosening the restrictions on bars.

Karraker said he supports "anything we can do for the Castro for underserved communities."

"I saw an article the other day that there are only seven lesbian bars left in the U.S., which is horrible," Karraker added. "If another Pendulum or another Lexington were to come along, we should really prioritize that over another dance bar for men."

(The Lexington Club was a Mission neighborhood bar catering to queer women that closed in 2015; the Pendulum was a Castro neighborhood bar catering to Black LGBTQs that closed in 2005 and was rechristened as Toad Hall by new owner Les Natali.)

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who manages Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, said that she doesn't want the neighborhood to become too bar-centric, however, lest that take away from daytime business.

"You don't want to take the cork off all together," Bennett said. "I think it's important to have the ability to pick and choose and I think what Suzy is proposing sounds fabulous."

Bintliff told the B.A.R. that the office does not know how long new bars have been prohibited in the Castro.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the merchants approved two resolutions in nearly unanimous votes. The first was issuing a letter of support to the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza for its proposed future plaza design. The second was issuing a letter of support to Beth Hughes of Bottle Bacchanal, urging regulatory bodies to expedite the planning and permitting processes as necessary for businesses to open.

Her permit request is expected to be approved by the city's planning commission at its September 9 meeting. The liquor store specializing in natural wines and artisanal beverages is slated to open at 4126 18th Street between Collingwood and Castro streets.

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