City spanks Power Exchange

Pub date October 6, 2009
WriterMegan Gordon

"Power Exchange is currently closed due to unfair Fire Department restrictions," states the message on the telephone answering machine of the embattled sex club, which plans to open — and possibly reignite its battle with neighbors and city officials — as soon as this weekend, Oct. 11.

Owner Michael Powers had hoped to open Oct. 2 after being shut down for alleged Fire Code violations on Sept. 18, shortly after opening for business in its new home at 34 Mason St. in the Tenderloin. But things are taking longer than Powers expected after he failed another city inspection Oct. 1. The seemingly endless paperwork from the various city agencies and the bewildering bureaucratic process are causing Powers to lose money — and patience — with each passing weekend.

Power Exchange isn’t just a venerable sex club, it’s a popular gathering place for the transgender and BDSM communities and a hub for unfettered sexual fun of all types, drawing customers from all over the Bay Area. Yet along with its strong following, the club has garnered significant opposition that recently forced its closure.

For 13 years, business boomed at the previous location at 74 Otis St. But Powers’ landlord and business partner went into bankruptcy, so Powers tried to reopen on Gough Street. But the Brady Street Neighborhood Coalition mobilized an opposition campaign with flyers and phone calls and the lease was terminated. Powers says the closure wasn’t because of the neighbors, but because the area had undergone a zoning change, making it difficult to acquire necessary permits.

So Powers found the location at 34 Mason and claims he was told by the Planning Department that it had previously housed Crash nightclub with an assembly permit already in place, and that no conditional use permit hearings were required. As far as he knew, Power Exchange was good to go.

Then the San Francisco Chronicle starting agitating against Power Exchange, quoting opponents and linking the club’s opening to incidents at the Pink Diamond nightclub and Grand Liquor, two Tenderloin businesses plagued with violence and liquor license issues. In the Sept. 12 article, "Backlash Against Sex Club in Tenderloin," news columnist C.W. Nevius wrote, "The club’s workers just moved in, opened for business, and apparently assumed that no one would say a word. They are in for a surprise."

Yet a subsequent news article ("Sex Club’s Presence Raises Concern," Sept. 17) cited zoning administrator Lawrence Badiner from the Planning Department and Department of Public Health spokesperson Jim Soos as indicating Power Exchange was a legal use for the site. "Even though the club operates from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., it does not need an after-hours permit or a public hearing before the Entertainment Commission, nor does it need a permit from the health department because it does not sell food or alcohol or operate whirlpool tubs," reporter Meredith May wrote, although she indicated that city officials were looking for ways to heed the concerns of some neighbors and stop the club from opening.

Powers was preparing to open when he was told that the building did not, in fact, have a permit for assembly. Fire Department spokesperson Mindy Talmage claims, "Crash never obtained a permit to operate. Nothing. So they were in there illegally."

Fire Department inspector Kathy Harold met with Powers in early August and gave him a list of improvements to acquire the proper permit. He completed all but two, and had a work order for the remaining items. Harold told Powers they could issue a conditional use permit, allowing him to open.

Powers eagerly awaited Harold’s follow-up visit on Sept. 16 when she was to issue the conditional use permit. But Harold was, unexpectedly, joined by inspector Donal Duffy from the Building Department. Instead of a conditional use permit, Powers was issued a "cease all operations" citation.

"Apparently the Building Department had an issue with Powers. They never called to say they did everything on the list. Normally we could issue them a conditional public assembly permit. However, the Building Department issued a cease operations permit, and they supercede us. We can’t overrule that," Talmage said. So the party was over before it had much of a chance to begin.

A frustrated Powers went ahead and opened Sept. 18, but city officials showed up to shut it down. He’s convinced that this is about more than a few building improvements or filing a change of use document for the appropriate permit. "It’s not about whether that building is safe. It’s safe as safe can be right now," he claims.

Tenderloin Station Police Capt. Gary Jimenez disagrees. "We want to prevent them from opening up because the location is dangerous. It’s a fire hazard, we’re not sure the sprinkler system is hooked up, and they don’t have an occupancy permit from the Fire Department. Nor will they be able to get one until they clear the building inspector violations."

Yet city officials seemed OK with the club until neighbors and the Chronicle turned up the heat.

"The feeling most residents have is that they’re already dealing with significant crime and quality of life issues. This is the last thing that they wanted to move into this largely residential neighborhood," says Daniel Hurtado, executive director of the Central Market Community Benefit District.

Patrons say the discreet club has gotten a bum rap. "Power Exchange has always had good security, a good relationship with its neighbors and customers, an open-door policy on concerns, and a sense of giving back to the community," Dori, a longtime Power Exchange patron, told us.

Powers, who ran for mayor in 2007, remains defiant: "Currently I look like I’m closed down because I’m defying the law. The reality? You’re not going to prohibit me from being open because of paperwork. If I need to file a new document, fine. Let’s move on."

But after failing to get the green light during an Oct. 1 inspection, Powers is feeling frustrated. "The Planning Department, again, is doing their hocus-pocus over their interpretation of the business. If you’re going to say we’re not restrained from going in there, what does it matter what type of business we are? If Badiner would just say we’re not prohibiting them from opening, the Fire Department will let us kick the doors open."

Devoted patrons of Power Exchange echo this frustration. "We all want a safe club and appreciate the need for inspections related to safety and expect the city to work quickly and fairly with the PE to remedy any safety issues so it may reopen for business soon for me and the whole community," Robin said.

Powers describes his "complete and utter frustration with the finger pointing of the different bureaucracies" as maddening. But the ball is rolling. When they do reopen, it remains to be seen if residents of San Francisco — known to be open-minded and accepting — will allow Powers to just settle in. For now, neighborhood groups wait with watchful eyes as Power Exchange patrons prepare to play once again.