Political Notes: Planning body backs zoning fix for SF gay bathhouses

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday April 7, 2022
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The former Bulldog Baths building at 130-132 Turk Street is expected to become the new home of Eros sex club. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The former Bulldog Baths building at 130-132 Turk Street is expected to become the new home of Eros sex club. Photo: Rick Gerharter

San Francisco planners have thrown their support behind a proposed zoning change that will allow gay bathhouses and other adult sex venues to open in the city's historic LGBTQ neighborhoods. The aim by city leaders is to finalize the code update by Pride Month in June.

Following the recommendation of city planners, the planning commission voted 7-0 at its April 7 meeting to endorse the sex venues zoning update. It is to be taken up by the city's Small Business Commission at its meeting Monday, April 11, then will be heard by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee a week later on April 18.

"We need to do everything we can to give these business owners the tools they need to stay in business," said planning commissioner Joel Koppel.

A prohibition against such businesses having locked rooms, enacted in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, was officially lifted in early 2021. Yet zoning restrictions remain in place preventing adult sex businesses from operating in most of the city.

Zoning Administrator Corey Teague in December 2020 determined that adult sex venues as defined by the city's health code were considered a type of adult business under the planning code. Such establishments include adult bookstores, video stores and theaters historically patronized by men in order to engage in sex with other men on site. They are broadly banned throughout much of San Francisco, including in such LGBTQ neighborhoods as the Castro, Upper Market, Tenderloin, and South of Market.

To lift the de facto adult sex business ban, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced the cleanup zoning proposal in March. He had spearheaded the legislative drive to bring back traditional gay bathhouses in San Francisco.

His ordinance updates the definition for adult sex venues to include retail sales and service uses. It also outright allows them to operate 24/7 in the Castro and on upper Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street. They would also be allowed on Folsom Street between Dore Alley and 7th Street, and throughout SOMA west of 7th Street.

While initially proposed to only include the 100 block of Turk Street in the Tenderloin, the ordinance is being expanded so that such businesses would be allowed throughout the Transgender District's boundaries. It would also make clear that the venues could seek live entertainment permits.

Such businesses would need to seek a conditional use permit if they wanted to open in other parts of SOMA or in the Mission, Dogpatch, and Bayview. They would also need to seek permission to operate between 2 and 6 a.m. in those locations. Because it would require a vote by the planning commission, residents of those areas would be able to weigh in on allowing an adult sex business to open.

The ordinance is "paving the way for queer business owners to contribute to the post-pandemic recovery," Jacob Bintliff, a legislative aide to Mandelman and former city planner, told the oversight body Thursday.

Robert Goldfarb, executive director of the Leather & LGBTQ Cultural District in SOMA, urged for the passage of the ordinance in order to help revive the business corridors in the various LGBTQ neighborhoods.

"This is long overdue," he said, noting it would "benefit the community by helping to remove stigma, creating more community-serving spaces, and energize possibilities for queer businesses that have been prevented from opening in the city."

The supervisors are expected to vote in support of making the zoning change by late April, meaning it should be enacted in early June. Once it is Eros, the sex club for queer and trans men, plans to reopen its doors at 132 Turk Street.

After closing its longtime upper Market Street location in the Castro LGBTQ district in December, Eros began remodeling and moving into its new space. The building had been the site of the gay Bulldog Baths in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Today, the upper floors of the former bathhouse are being turned into apartments with the baths' historic address of 130 Turk Street, a short walk from the Powell Street Muni and BART station. Eros is taking over the 4,000 square foot commercial space in the property.

It includes a mezzanine level where a play space is being constructed for Eros' patrons. There will be another play space on the ground floor and a locker room area, with plans to include one or two semi-private rooms with doors at a later date.

Eros co-owner Ken Rowe noted to the planning commission that it was the only such venue catering to queer and trans men to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, which led it to be closed for extended periods of time over the last two years. He was referring to the fact that the sex club Blow Buddies that had been in SOMA went out of business amid the health crisis.

"We are not the new kid on the block. We are the only old kid on the block existing in the city," said Rowe.

As Rowe told the Bay Area Reporter earlier this year, Eros should be given the go ahead to reopen from planning staff as soon as the new zoning becomes law. In the meantime, Eros has raised $2,933 toward its fundraising goal to help recoup its moving expenses.

"Aunt Charlie's Lounge, across the street, and many of he neighborhood non profits have been really excited and supportive of our helping revitalize this section of the Transgender and Theater Districts," wrote Rowe, referring to the LGBTQ bar long home to drag shows and other events, in a March 25 note on the fundraising page.

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