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Monday, February 9, 2009

Just How Many Favors Can S.F. Grant to City's Favorite Politically Connected Barkeep?

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 12:01 AM

The Planning Department maintains that Medjool's rooftop bar is illegal -- yet every politician in the city has raised bucks up there and no one seemed to know about it
  • The Planning Department maintains that Medjool's rooftop bar is illegal -- yet every politician in the city has raised bucks up there and no one seemed to know about it

A fair amount of ink -- but not enough -- was spilled over how a typo will allow heavy Gavin Newsom donor Gus Murad to build a proposed condo project at the New Mission Theater 20 feet higher than zoning rules allow -- and Newsom's veto overrode the Board of Supervisors' attempt to remedy this error.

So, in the hubbub over the American Apparel showdown at Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, it was more or less lost in the shuffle when commission vice president Christina Olague brought this up (you can watch it here at about the 11-minute mark). She further queried whether the rooftop bar at Medjool -- also owned by New Mission Theater developer Murad -- was legal under the city's zoning laws. It took until Saturday for the Chronicle to report and expand upon what zoning administrator Larry Badiner said at the time: It's not

The Chronicle story, however, glosses over two points that should make anyone uneasy about how sausage gets made in this city.

The rooftop bar isn't just a "top 10 venue" for political happenings as Supervisor Bevan Dufty is quoted as saying. It's a ubiquitous site for political goings-on, be they fund-raisers for out-of-town Congress and Senate candidates or local big-money events for San Francisco politicians of every political leaning.

"This is just crazy to me," Olague told SF Weekly. "Every politician in town has been up on that roof deck. Dennis Herrera had his fund-raisers up there, even Mark Sanchez, a progressive Green. And, since 2004 [when the rooftop bar opened], it was illegal and no one knew? No one held [Murad] accountable?"

The second discomfiting point -- and one barely touched upon by the Chronicle -- is the manner that Murad has chosen to remedy the fact the Planning Department feels his bar is illegal (and always has been). Rather than comply with the law, he is, in essence, asking the law to comply with him. But it gets stranger than that. Included in the proposal to make the New Mission Theater a "Special Use District" -- allowing exemptions to neighborhood zoning rules -- is language about tweaking the rules to accommodate more eateries in neighboring properties -- "including rooftops" on adjacent buildings, including Medjool.

Even by San Francisco standards, this seems to be a very odd way to run a railroad. Murad has asked for the city to retroactively greenlight a bar it deemed illegal via a request to bend the rules for a wholly different property

After reading this request, Olague asked a question at the Thursday board meeting that Badiner has yet to answer: Is it normal city policy to correct illegal situations via the granting of exceptions to other, totally unrelated projects? By the way, when Olague, the vice president of the planning commission, asks a question like this, what she really means is, "I hope it's not normal to do this."

SF Weekly's messages for Badiner, city planner Craig Nikitas, and Murad's attorney, Andrew Junius, have not yet been returned.

"This is like a double-header -- first the veto and now this," Olague says. "We all love Gus, he's a cool dude, but that's beside the point. I'm wondering -- does this happen all the time? Is it common for an illegal use to be legalized through a Special Use District of another project -- with the same developer?"

Note: Despite Christina Olague's comments, Dennis Herrera denies having ever set foot in Medjool.

UPDATE, 8:40 a.m.: City planner Craig Nikitas writes SF Weekly that following the passage of the gargantuan Eastern Neighborhood plan, the New Mission Theater project was able to move forward without needing a Special Use District. So, the SUD application has been withdrawn -- leaving no plan in place to address the code violations Medjool's rooftop bar. Nikitas states that Murad will now have to either submit separate legislation to alter the law and legalize the bar or "convert it to a permitted use" -- which, in this case, seems to mean shutting it down. Place your bets. 

UPDATE, 1:15 p.m.: Gus Murad's attorney, Andrew Junius, countered a claim from Nikitas that the permits were granted for the rooftop bar with the understanding that it was for use by hotel guests and not the general public -- making the current use illegal. Junius claims the bar's current use is legal and always has been. As for what comes next, "That's for the Planning Department to decide."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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