Planning body backs zoning fix for SF gay bathhouses

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. City leaders’ goal 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 approve the zoning update for sex venues. It is to be taken up by the city’s Small Business Commission at its meeting on Monday, April 11, and then will be heard by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee a week later, the April 18.

“We need to do everything we can to give these business owners the tools they need to stay in business,” Planning Commissioner Joel Koppel said.

A ban on these businesses having locked rooms, enacted in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, was officially lifted in early 2021. Yet zoning restrictions remain in place, preventing adult sex businesses to operate 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. These establishments include adult bookstores, video stores, and theaters historically frequented by men in order to have sex with other men on the premises. They are widely banned in much of San Francisco, including LGBTQ neighborhoods such as Castro, Upper Market, Tenderloin, and South of Market.

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

Its order updates the definition of adult sex venues to include retail sales and service uses. This also allows them to operate 24/7 in the Castro and 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.

Although initially proposed to include only the 100 block of Turk Street in the Tenderloin, the ordinance is being extended so that such businesses are permitted within the boundaries of the transgender district. It would also clarify that venues could apply for live entertainment permits.

These businesses would need to apply for a Conditional Use Permit if they wanted to open in other parts of SOMA or in the Mission, Dogpatch and Bayview. They should also seek permission to operate between 2 and 6 a.m. at these locations. Because it would require a planning commission vote, residents of those areas could weigh in to allow an adult sex business to open.

The order “paves the way for gay business owners to help post-pandemic recovery,” Jacob Bintliff, Mandelman’s legislative aide and former city planner, told the watchdog on Thursday.

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

“This is long overdue,” he said, noting that it would “benefit the community by helping to eliminate stigma, creating more spaces for community service and energizing opportunities for business.” queer who have been prevented from opening in the city”.

Supervisors are expected to vote in favor of the zoning change by the end of April, which means it should be enacted in early June. Once It’s Eros, the sex club for queer and trans men, plans to reopen at 132 Turk Street.

After closing its longtime location on Upper Market Street in the Castro LGBTQ neighborhood 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 converted into apartments with the bathhouses historic address at 130 Turk Street, a short walk from Powell Street Muni and the BART station. Eros takes over the property’s 4,000 square foot retail space.

It includes a mezzanine where a play area is being built for Eros customers. There will be a further downstairs play area and cloakroom, with plans to include one or two semi-private bedrooms with doors at a later date.

Eros co-owner Ken Rowe told the planning commission that it was the only such venue for queer and trans men to have survived the COVID-19 pandemic, which made him led to being closed for long periods over the past two years. He was referring to the fact that the Blow Buddies sex club which was in SOMA had ceased operations amid the health crisis.

“We’re not the new kid on the block. We’re the only existing neighborhood elder in town,” Rowe said.

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

“Aunt Charlie’s Lounge across the street and many nonprofits in the neighborhood have been very enthusiastic and supportive of our help in revitalizing this section of transgender neighborhoods and theaters,” said Rowe wrote, referring to the long-running LGBTQ bar for drag shows and other events, in a March 25 post on the fundraising page.

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