Fighting for the right to party

Pub date July 1, 2008


It’s become increasingly difficult and expensive to stage street fairs, concerts, or other parties in San Francisco, a trend chronicled by the Guardian over the past two years (see "Death of fun," 05/23/06 and "Death of fun, the sequel," 04/25/07). But event and nightlife promoters have responded with a proposed ballot measure that would write the right to party into the city’s charter.

The "Promoting and Sustaining Music and Culture in San Francisco" charter amendment would acknowledge the importance of special events to the city’s character, streamline the process for obtaining city permits, and require the nine-plus city departments that promoters must deal with to submit reports outlining how their policies and fee structures will need to be altered to comply with the new mandate for fun.

The measure was developed by the Save SF Culture Coalition, whose members include the Entertainment Commission, Black Rock City LLC (which stages Burning Man as well as events here in town), the Late Night Coalition, and the Outdoor Events Coalition (a group formed last year to counter city policies and neighbor complaints that threatened to scuttle the North Beach Jazz Festival, How Weird Street Faire, concerts in Golden Gate Park, and other events). The measure is sponsored by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and has picked up four other supervisors as cosponsors, so it needs just one more vote for the Board of Supervisors to place it on the November ballot.

"It was long overdue that the city produce a master plan and vision that promotes a sustainable environment for music, culture, and entertainment throughout the city," Mirkarimi said.

In fact, event promoters say they’ve been hit by a quadruple whammy that threatens their livelihoods and the vibrant nature of the city: rising fees charged by city departments looking to close budget gaps, increased concern over alcohol consumption and other liability issues, more conflicts over noise in increasingly dense neighborhoods such as SoMa, and the ability of a handful of complaining neighbors to create event-killing permit conditions. And those last two problems are only likely to get worse as the city grows.

"We want the city to create a sustainability policy that will save our outdoor events in the face of all the development that is going on," said John Wood, a member of the Late Night Coalition and a promoter who also serves on the San Francisco Love Fest board of directors. "We need to be able to say, ‘This is city policy and you’re not following it.’"

Promoter and club owner Terrance Alan was an original member of the Entertainment Commission, which was formed in 2003 in part to resolve complaints over noise and manage relations between nightclubs and their neighbors. But he said the agency has little staff and no leverage over other city departments involved in permitting, which includes the Planning, Building, Port, Police, Fire, Health, and Recreation and Park commissions and departments, as well as the Municipal Transportation Authority and Interdepartmental Staff Committee on Traffic and Transportation (ISCOTT), the body that approves street-closure permits.

"We have been completely unsuccessful at getting their attention," Alan said. But this new measure, he said, would "set the stage for ongoing discussions that need to be happening."

Or as Wood put it, "It would give us ammunition in the future battles we’re going to have. It’s not going to make those battles go away."

Recreation and Park Department spokesperson Rose Dennis said her agency must deal with many competing concerns, ranging from budgetary issues to being responsive to complaints raised by citizens. "We understand that it might feel heavy-handed, but we have a duty to do so because we have to balance a number of concerns," Dennis said. "[Event promoters] have a bottom line, and we have a bottom line. We have a lot of people to serve."

Yet she said the department will comply with the measure and adjust its policies, fees, and procedures as needed if the measure is approved by voters.

At a June 27 Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing, there was lots of support for the measure and no real opposition. "We’re concerned about the future of arts and culture in San Francisco," Steven Raspa, who does special events for Black Rock City, said at the hearing.

All three committee members voiced support for the measure, but because it needed some minor changes, a final vote was pushed back to July 9. Proponents characterize the measure as trying to bring some balance to a situation in which the loudest wheels — those of NIMBYs complaining about noise or party detritus — keep getting greased.

"The bureaucracy is hearing from these neighborhood groups all the time," Wood said. "We feel that we are the majority and we need to demonstrate that politically."

Amanda Witherell contributed to this report.

To read the measure or learn more, visit