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Live Nation battles neighbors over big concerts at Nob Hill Masonic Center 

Wednesday, Mar 11 2009
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With its swank hotels and Hitchcock movie memories, Nob Hill ain't exactly a San Francisco den of rock 'n' roll. The giant vans lumbering over those scenic hills are loaded up with more fanny packs than they are with guitar amps.

Live Nation is re-envisioning the landmark landscape, though, to include a more regularly booked concert hall. The national promoter wants in at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, where it's currently negotiating a long-term lease.

According to Live Nation's Lee Smith, his company is planning to revamp the 51-year-old hall and book 70 performances a year there, putting the space on par with other midsize venues like the Warfield and Oakland's Fox Theater. Live Nation already uses the building, which holds about 3,500 people, half a dozen times annually — as recently as last month it hosted a show with indie balladeers Antony and the Johnsons. Nonetheless, the promoter is stirring up the ire of nearby apartment dwellers and neighborhood organizations.

Stephen Gomez, a Nob Hill resident for 30 years, is leading one faction against Live Nation's plans. Over the phone last week, he ticked off a list of issues, including the location of the loading dock, the increase in unsightly band tour buses in the area, and the time the shows end. He wants to see performances let out at 10 p.m., and the bars in the building close at 9 p.m. Smith says Live Nation is reluctant to impose a curfew, but adds that concerts generally operate between 8 and 11 p.m.

Gomez, a drummer who says he saw Jimi Hendrix back in the day, pushes stereotypes of the typical San Francisco concertgoers to further his points. If Live Nation moves in, so does a younger crowd, and he says his hood is not the place to entertain that demographic. "Nothing against young people, but they need room to move, and they're going to be experimenting with drugs," he says, adding that his home base is not the place for such activity. He's fine with older patrons of other nearby bars, such as the chichi Huntington Hotel, because they "aren't exactly smashing beer cans against their head." (Beercan crushing? I'm not even sure that goes on at punk shows anymore. We're a city of recyclers here.)

Gomez and other neighborhood opponents paint the post–Live Nation Nob Hill as a bastion of rock abandon, adding that the tourist economy would be threatened if the revamped Masonic turned the area into a "dangerous place." His only proof that Live Nation encourages violent activity? A single New Jersey show with Ozzy Osbourne that erupted into parking lot violence a few years ago.

The Entertainment Commission's Terrance Alan says he isn't aware of any complaints about Live Nation in San Francisco, calling the company "one of our best production teams in town."

"I think by having a proven, responsible manager who knows the entertainment industry will make [Nob Hill Masonic Center] more stable," he says. He adds that in taking event control away from the Masons, the neighborhood gains an entertainment industry–savvy entity to deal with if there are problems. Live Nation is an "international production company," he says, "and they're not going to move in and start a bunch of problems."

Live Nation is, of course, one of the giants in the concert industry, but since losing control of the Warfield last year it no longer has a midsize music venue in the Bay Area. (Full disclosure: SF Weekly's business department, a separate entity from the editorial department, has sponsorship deals with Live Nation.) The Fillmore, which Live Nation currently programs, holds a mere 1,100 fans. Conventional wisdom in the industry is that the sweet spot for the concert business right now is in running 3,000- to 10,000-capacity halls. With the larger arena acts (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond) getting on in years, the next generation of superstars just isn't there to charm stadiumgoers into seats in large part because the major-label industry that created those rock stars is broken.

It's less risky to make money off more attainable bands playing midsize rooms, says Gary Bongiovanni of concert industry analysts Pollstar. "That's why you're seeing Another Planet open the Fox Theater in Oakland," he says. "AEG — the second-largest concert promoter in the world — took over the Warfield. And then Live Nation is obviously looking for a comparable venue, and the Masonic would fit that bill."

Live Nation plans to update the Masonic Center by pushing back the stage, adding bars, and ripping out the permanent seats so the main room is flexible for standing-room-only or seated events. Smith says his company would book the same gamut of acts there as it does at its other venues — meaning comedians, soft rockers like Snow Patrol, and hard rock acts —while respecting the space they're working with.

The proposed renovations would make the Masonic Center a regular entertainment destination, which is the opposing neighbors' main concern. After all, it is located in a dense patch of real estate that includes Grace Cathedral and the Fairmont Hotel. Add 3,500 people to that area at least twice a week, and human and vehicle congestion becomes a big concern. John Strazzanti, a member of Protect Nob Hill, says his group wants firm agreements from Live Nation that it will be responsible for avoiding gridlock near his California Street apartment. He says his group has met with Live Nation a couple of times over the last six months. "We've seen nothing in the way of a response," he says. "Only now that we've organized some objections have they made some token efforts to improve things." Strazzanti himself sees room for compromise if Live Nation is willing to put into writing its strategies for securing the area directly around the center so residents don't suffer from floods of traffic and trash.

Smith says his company will do whatever it takes to make sure the neighborhood is not affected by live performances; it has already met with the San Francisco Police Department to discuss traffic issues. Live Nation is also working on ways to silence idling tour buses so noise and gasoline aren't polluting the area, a direct result of meeting with concerned neighborhood groups.

The next step in the battle over the future of the Masonic Center occurs when the Planning Commission hears the issue, which Smith estimates will happen within the month. If all goes well, San Francisco will increase its opportunities to catch big-buzz acts in a beautiful renovated auditorium by the end of the year. But nothing will be signed until the promoter can use its crowd control skills on a growing neighborhood backlash.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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