Zoning Issue Means Hiccup for Planned SOMA Gay Club

  • by Matthew S. Bajko
  • Friday June 13, 2014
Share this Post:

A zoning issue has caused a hiccup in the plans by drag queen Heklina and her business partners to open a new gay club in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood.

The group of investors is in escrow to buy the former Oasis nightclub at the corner of 11th and Folsom streets. They have not disclosed how much they offered the current owner, Annie A. Berthiaume, though an online listing pegged the sales price at $875,000.

"It is more than we wanted but within the range of what we could do and makes sense," said Geoff Benjamin, one of Heklina's business partners. "We are paying a premium for a building that is run down because it is one of the few properties that has the capacity for entertainment and a liquor license."

Heklina, whose given name is Stefan Grygelko, has been searching for a permanent home to re-launch her weekly drag shows, which she recently announced would no longer be called Trannyshack due to individuals who have decried her use of a trans slur in the name.

"I want to bring Trannyshack back as a weekly show but not under that name," Heklina told the Bay Area Reporter in a phone interview last week. "If we get a new sound system and lights, we could bring in nightclub acts. I see a lot of potential there."

Last summer the business partners had tried to land the lease for the former Paradise Lounge club space on the opposite corner of the 11th and Folsom intersection. But the landlord rejected their proposal.

The Oasis site is included in the entertainment corridor created on 11th Street between Folsom and Harrison streets. But due to additional language incorporated into the Western SOMA Neighborhood Plan that the city adopted last year, it would not be permissible for the owners to obtain an entertainment license and they could only operate it as a bar.

The reason, said Benjamin, is because it falls within 200 feet of a residential enclave district located on a nearby alley called Kissling Street. The rule is meant to provide a buffer zone between housing and entertainment uses in the area.

Thus, under the current rules, Heklina would not be allowed to throw her drag shows at the space, nor could a DJ or musical acts perform there.

"I can't find a single person who asked for this zoning control," said Benjamin. "It is one of these crazy planning processes where it all sounded good but nobody really thought about it. They included property in an entertainment corridor that can't have entertainment."

The deal to purchase the building had been on track until Heklina and her business partners discovered the zoning issue with the property. If not dealt with by city leaders, they do not want to buy the building.

"It looks like it is going to happen except for this stupid zoning issue," said Heklina. "It is a ridiculous zoning thing no body wanted. Not even the residents wanted it or asked for it."

In a phone interview this week with the B.A.R., District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents SOMA, said the zoning issue with the Oasis site stemmed out of a desire by nightlife backers and SOMA residents to limit conflicts between entertainment and residential uses.

"The intent was always for that site to be zoned for uses that include entertainment and nightlife," said Kim.

Jim Meko, a gay man who chaired the Western SOMA Citizens Planning Task Force, told the B.A.R. that he had warned entertainment officials and Kim that the last minute change they made to the new zoning plan would negatively impact the Oasis site.

"This happened because they didn't want any new residences anywhere near the 11th Street nightclubs," said Meko, noting that the initial proposal would have grandfathered in the existing clubs as legal non-conforming uses. "Our zoning proposal would have allowed this to go through without a blip."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, the lone vote on the board against the Western SOMA zoning changes, said he was not surprised to learn of the problem with the Oasis site.

He voted against the plan, said Wiener, "precisely because it is anti-nightlife. It is designed to reduce the amount of nightlife in Western SOMA."

Saying he is "1,000 percent supportive of Heklina being able to move forward with the space," Wiener added that he hopes the city "can quickly fix" the zoning issues.

In May, Benjamin approached Kim's office to seek her support in changing the zoning for the Oasis property. Before they closed on buying the property, they wanted assurances that the restriction on entertainment use would be lifted.

"They consistently said they were happy to fix this. They just haven't been moving on it," Benjamin told the B.A.R. during a June 6 phone interview.

Adding to their urgency, said Benjamin, is the property owner has informed them she has offers from developers who want to build housing on the site.

Last Thursday, the same day Heklina spoke to the B.A.R., she posted a message on Facebook to complain that Kim was "moving very slowly" on the matter and asked supporters to contact the supervisor's office.

By Friday afternoon Kim, who was traveling last week, had posted her own note to her Facebook page saying her office had contacted the city attorney's office last Monday, June 2, to request they draft up legislation to deal with the zoning issue.

"I absolutely support this zoning clean up and had already informed the owners re: our support," wrote Kim.

Asked by the B.A.R. about the complaints her office was foot-dragging on the issue, Kim said, "I honestly didn't know where it came from."

After meeting with Benjamin in mid-May, Kim said her staff spent two weeks contacting interested parties to gauge if there would be any opposition to fixing the zoning issue. After finding none, they submitted their request with City Attorney Dennis Herrera's office to draft the planning code change.

"Honestly, our office was moving very quickly on this issue," said Kim, adding that, "It is not a simple change actually."

Meko said there could be opposition depending on what changes to the zoning the city proposes.

"I can't imagine what Jane is going to do," he said.

Benjamin said this week that due to Kim's announcement the nightclub investors "feel comfortable moving forward" in buying the building.

"I think the timeline of politics and the timeline of business don't always go at the same pace," he said. "We needed Supervisor Kim to respond in a very short time frame and we really appreciate she was able to."

Kim hopes to introduce the zoning change legislation by the end of June, triggering a 90-day deadline for the planning commission to then address it. The Board of Supervisors would then vote on the zoning change sometime this fall.

"I am absolutely in full support of club Oasis re-opening," said Kim.

Heklina and her investors hope to close on the sale by the end of June. Benjamin said there is a chance they could have the bar open in time for this year's Folsom Street Fair, set to take place Sunday, September 21.

"As a gay man I would love to have that space open during Folsom, at least as a bar," he said. "It would be fantastic to have another gay venue right on Folsom Street right in the fairgrounds."

Other than cleaning up the building, which has been closed for five years, Benjamin said they are not planning to do much work on the space.

"We are keeping it simple," he said. "It will work for us as is, so that should make things relatively easier than if we were doing a major remodel."

SF forum Focuses on LGBT Seniors

The third annual Howard Grayson LGBT Elder Life Conference is set to take place this weekend in San Francisco and will once again highlight various aging issues impacting the LGBT community.

The main focus of this year's event will be the findings and recommendations of the city's LGBT Aging Policy Task Force's report it presented to city officials this spring. In particular, the conference will zero in on housing and health concerns among LGBT seniors.

"The convergence of these two life problems for elders in our community has created a crisis, especially for seniors whose HIV/AIDS care depends on maintaining their San Francisco residency," stated conference convener Sue Englander. "To worry about losing both at this point in their lives can be overwhelming. We want to promote pro-active strategies for dealing with these two inextricably connected issues."

Sponsored by the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, the conference's name honors Milk club stalwart Howard Grayson, a gay, union, and civil rights activist, who died in September 2011. This year's event will also pay tribute to Jazzie Collins, a transgender activist and member of the aging task force, who died last year.

The daylong gathering is free to attend. It takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 14 at the LGBT Community Center, 1800 Market Street at Octavia, in San Francisco.

HIV Listening Tour Hits Bay Area

The Office of National AIDS Policy is bringing its listening tour to the Bay Area later this month.

The federal office's newly appointed director, Douglas Brooks, has been hosting listening sessions around the country this spring. President Barack Obama named Brooks, a gay African American man living with HIV, to the post in March following the resignation of Dr. Grant Colfax, who previously had served as the director of HIV prevention and research for the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The focus of the sessions will be on local implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the HIV Care Continuum Initiative.

The first one will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 24 in the Oakland City Hall Council Chambers. The building is located at 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, near the 12th Street BART station.

The second will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. Thursday, June 26 at the UC Hastings College of the Law's Louis B Mayer Lounge located at 198 McAllister Street in San Francisco.

To register to attend, visit https://www.cmpinc.net/onap/registration.aspx