Nearly 150 years ago, the corner of 17th and Mississippi in Potrero Hill was home to the Pacific Rolling Mill Co., the largest steel producer on the West Coast. But in the 22 years since Bottom of the Hill opened its doors to live music, warehouses on the former steel site, now operated by the business moving company Corovan, have provided a buffer between amplified rock 'n' roll and neighbors who might be trying to get a little shut-eye.
In late 2011, when Walden Development announced plans to build a Kaiser Permanente medical complex on the Corovan site — complete with roughly 200 homes — Bottom of the Hill's owners felt sure the club's days were numbered.
"We were worried that the residences would have us shuttered. When folks move in across from an existing nightclub, it puts that nightclub in jeopardy of closure," says co-owner Lynn Schwarz.
Potrero Hill residents, including Bottom of the Hill's owners, succeeded in convincing Kaiser to build elsewhere. But Walden is back — along with real-estate investors Prado Group — to create a mixed-use project on the Corovan site. Although they haven't designed anything specific yet, Prado's Dan Safir told a group of concerned Potrero Hill denizens recently that it will almost certainly include housing.
"We have a housing crisis, and we are housing developers. There's a tremendous value here," Safir said, referring to the site.
That housing crisis has dominated the conversation in San Francisco for years. Job growth has outstripped housing development, contributing to sky-high rents and purchase prices, which increased 12 to 16 percent last year alone, according to real estate website Trulia. And while more than 6,000 units are under construction and another 4,700 have had building plans approved, according to the Planning Department, those new residents may not bring good news for the city's nightlife.
"There are no protections to nightclubs that even one irate neighbor won't get them shut down, as we've seen over and over in this city," Schwarz says.
In 2011, Slim's liquor license was suspended for 10 days after a neighbor repeatedly complained to police and the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. The Mission's 12 Galaxies was forced to reinforce its noise-proofing before eventually closing in 2008, Schwartz says. After the real estate blog SocketSite discovered in February that building owners had submitted preliminary plans for a condo project on the site of the Elbo Room on Valencia Street, rumors circulated that the club could close. Club owner Matt Shapiro says those plans were only theoretical, and that the Elbo Room isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"It's the same pressure. We're feeling it all over the city," says Guy Carson, who recently sold the Cafe du Nord — where up to 200 condos are planned nearby — after running it for 10 years. He's also a member of the California Music and Culture Association, which lobbies for local nightlife. "One of the arguments we keep making is that you have to plan for fun, and the developers aren't doing a good job of planning for fun."
City officials say they're aware of the need to protect clubs and nightlife as denser housing moves into San Francisco. The city even created a new position in its Office of Economic and Workforce Development devoted to the nightlife and entertainment sector, says Jocelyn Kane, director of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.
Ben Van Houten, founder of local music blog The Bay Bridged, has held that position for the past year. He says entertainment is big business in San Francisco, bringing in $4.2 billion in spending and employing 48,000 workers a year. Nightclubs alone accounted for $220 million of that in 2010, according to the Controller's office.
While Van Houten's main role is to help club owners navigate the complexities of City Hall, he's interested in finding new approaches in the face of development. "To the extent that we can facilitate more informed conversations between businesses and neighbors, or businesses and developers, I think that's great," he says.
But Carson says the situation calls for more than conversation, because residents paying $4,000 per month on a condo don't want to hear live music through the walls. The California Music and Culture Association is ready to push the idea of a San Francisco "entertainment corridor," a zone devoted to nightlife similar to Seattle's, he says.
For now, Bottom of the Hill is keeping a close eye on the Corovan site. "We don't necessarily want to be seen as enemies of development," Schwarz says, acknowledging that building housing in Potrero Hill makes sense and the city needs more of it. However, "I can't think of any examples where the club wins in this situation, so hope is in short supply if we get one repeat noise complainer nearby."