Extensive Castro Street closure OK'd, but panel nixes lesbian tech confab takeover of Warner plaza

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday July 13, 2023
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Castro Street was fenced off during last October's Lesbians Who Tech conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Heather Cassell
Castro Street was fenced off during last October's Lesbians Who Tech conference in the LGBTQ neighborhood. Photo: Heather Cassell

The city committee that oversees San Francisco street closures on July 13 approved most of Lesbians Who Tech's proposed Castro neighborhood plans for its mid-October confab — with one major exception.

The Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation, or ISCOTT, declined to approve the closure of Jane Warner Plaza on the advice of Leslie Bienenfeld of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Muni's F-Line streetcar requires any closure of the plaza be brief, she said, considering staffing limitations imposed by other events in the city around the time of the queer tech event, such as the United States Navy Blue Angels airshow, scheduled for October 6-8.

"You're proposing to take Jane Warner Plaza and the place that covers the train tracks for six days," Bienenfeld said. "That's a very staffing-intensive change for us. It's our turnaround, it's our layover point, and our staffing is such we cannot support losing it for six days. At most, we can lose it for one day."

Acting SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun on July 14 wrote in an email that references to the popular Blue Angels show was a "miscommunication" and does not impact Lesbians Who Tech.

"The event's duration brings staffing challenges; we cannot meet the demand of a six day event without careful planning," Chun stated, referring to the tech confab. "Muni and Lesbians Who Tech worked closely together to support the two blocks of closure of Castro Street, which impacts the 24, 33, and 35, and is the core of the event footprint. The proposal to close Jane Warner [Plaza] is new for this year, and since it impacts an active railway in a historic neighborhood, this comes with many logistical challenges still to be worked out."

Bryan Biello, the director of production for Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, was disappointed. The group — which is having its 10th annual gathering along Castro Street from October 16-20 — had been hoping to have check-ins at the plaza.

"We support changing the size of those tents to set that up differently so it doesn't obstruct the tracks," Biello said. "Is that a conversation I can have with you?"

Not really, according to Bienenfeld. There are safety issues to consider too, given the relatively small size of the plaza.

"People get distracted," she said. "They run into their colleague from a few years ago and aren't paying attention. In my opinion, the safest thing to do is to move this out of Jane Warner Plaza."

SFMTA's street use manager Bryant Woo, left, and Lesbians Who Tech's Bryan Biello discussed street closures planned for the October business conference in the Castro. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV  

SFMTA street use manager Bryant Woo moved to approve the street closures except the proposed closure on 17th Street between Castro and Hartford streets (Jane Warner Plaza) from October 16 at 12:01 a.m. to October 21 at 9:30 a.m. ISCOTT voted unanimously to approve those and table the Jane Warner Plaza closure until after Lesbians Who Tech and the SFMTA have had the opportunity to conduct an on-site visit.

Nonetheless, Woo said, Lesbians Who Tech shouldn't expect that closure to be approved.

"I'm going to tell you right now our operating requirements, as required by the California Public Utilities Commission, require extremely stringent clearances and limited access with regard to rail facilities," Woo said. "To have an event encouraging crowds adjacent to those rails is extremely sensitive, so I'm not going to say absolutely no, but it'll be an extensive uphill challenge."

Toni Muñoz, vice president of production and project management at Lesbians Who Tech, said the group might be willing to push.

"If we love a good uphill battle, great," she said.

Tech group works with merchants
Muñoz said the purpose of the event is to provide a "safe space" for lesbians, nonbinary people, and people of color.

"We're here to empower and connect LGBTQ+ women and nonbinary leaders, and women of color, in business," she said. "We try to give them access to tech companies in this amazing area in the Castro neighborhood, which is even more important with the enormous number of layoffs we've seen, unfortunately."

Last year, however, many Castro merchants didn't feel it was a safe space for them, and complaints about the street closures impacting deliveries and foot traffic were legion, as the Bay Area Reporter reported at the time.

In particular many people, including queer youth, were upset about fencing that was installed along Castro Street for the conference.

Laura Lala-Chávez, a nonbinary person who is the executive director of the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center, or LYRIC, was at last November's merchants meeting to introduce themself. Following a lengthy discussion on the Lesbians Who Tech conference, which had occurred the prior month, Lala-Chávez said that youth were dismayed by the fencing.

"It was hard for our young people to see the Lesbians Who Tech conference and see that barricade there," Lala-Chávez said.

Since then, the fencing issue has led to increased cooperation by Lesbians Who Tech and the Castro Merchants Association, culminating in the business group backing this year's confab at its March meeting but only if it replaced its fencing with barricades, as the B.A.R. reported.

Patrick Batt of Auto Erotica on 18th Street had compared last year's scene to an "armed camp."

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who's the president of the Castro Merchants Association, told the B.A.R. that she hopes the event is successful.

"I am happy to continue working with Lesbians Who Tech to try to make the event a success for all," she stated. "I have connected them with Pete Betancourt of Castro Street Seen as a way to make the exterior of the barrier feel more interactive and inclusive."

Castro Street Seen has put photos of various Castro historical events on shuttered businesses, such as Harvey's at 500 Castro Street. Betancourt did not immediately return a request for comment on July 13.

Batt was not so sanguine about the confab; he wrote the SFMTA about his concerns July 11, urging the street closures not be approved.

"It must be noted there has been public radio silence from LWT since that [March] meeting on the issues raised," he stated in his letter. "In fact, in April I reached out to the Austin, Texas LWT contact person asking to be notified when their ISCOTT hearing was scheduled. I was informed they would be happy to get that information to me. I never received the consideration of that notification and only learned about the hearing when I saw notices recently posted on light poles. ... This event has clearly, for some years, outgrown the Castro district and should NOT be approved for 2023."

Indeed, during that merchants' meeting, Lesbians Who Tech had teased an ISCOTT hearing March 15; however, no meeting was scheduled that day and the organization never responded to multiple B.A.R. requests for comment.

After the vote, Batt told the B.A.R., "I think it's clear the merchants were misrepresented on exactly what was going to happen and why a vote was taken in the March meeting. I think the contingencies were most important to the group, and Lesbians Who Tech decided to ghost the organization when they got the vote they did get because nobody reached out to resolve this or that concern."

SFMTA's Nick Chapman responded to Batt the same day that the event will probably happen "barring significant pushback from the community or the loss of support from City Hall and the key stakeholder groups in the Castro."

"We're aware of the impacts of the event generally, and also of the negative responses to last year's conference, which included frustration with the look and feel of the black clad fencing around the event site," Chapman stated. "And it is certainly a significant impact given the location and the private/for-profit nature of the event. ... I have discussed alternative venues with the organizers since the first time this event was held on 18th Street, but they continue to view the prestige/marquee value of being in the Castro as vital to their goals."

Batt said, "I don't think they care about the neighborhood, frankly."

"They just want a pretty background for their event," he said.

At Thursday's meeting, Biello stressed the cooperation with area businesses in his presentation; the check-ins initially being planned for Jane Warner Plaza were part of this, he said, as it would give attendees "greater visibility" of businesses they could patronize.

"We communicated a lot with the business about their pain points from last year's events," he said. "Packages, food truck deliveries have been a hurdle for them, so we wanted to set up delivery zones for them, for UPS, Uber Eats. It's also a great place to serve as a rideshare access point, or a taxi stand."

Lesbians Who Tech will also be hiring people to direct pedestrians and ensure there's not double parking along 18th Street, Biello said.

The street closures that were approved are Castro Street between Market and 18th streets from October 16 at 12:01 a.m. to October 21 at 9:30 a.m.; Castro Street between 18th and 19th streets between October 16 at 12:01 a.m. and October 21 at 7 a.m.; the parking lot behind the Castro Theatre from October 16 at 12:01 a.m. to October 21 at 2 p.m.; and the parking lot between the Castro Street Walgreens and Toad Hall on 18th Street from October 16 at 12:01 a.m. to October 21 at 10:30 a.m.

Updated, 7/14/23: This article has been updated with a comment from SFMTA that the Blue Angels airshow is not related to the Lesbians Who Tech confab.

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