Major Mid-Market Development Approved As Planning Denies LGBTQ Activists' Appeal

In a meeting that lasted nearly nine hours, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted in a 4-3 decision Thursday to deny an appeal against the 12-story development proposed for 950-974 Market St.—paving the way for the major development's approval.

As previously reported, development firm Group i is seeking to demolish four existing structures along Market Street between Fifth and Sixth streets to construct of a 120-foot-tall building that includes 242 dwellings, a 232-room hotel, 16,000 square feet of retail space, as well as 82 parking spaces and 319 bike parking spaces.

The appeal was filed against the project's Preliminary Mitigated Negative Declaration (PMND), which allows the project to move forward without undergoing the state's full environmental review process. Filed by Q Foundation activists Brian Basinger and Rick Galbreath—who hope to designate the area as an official LGBTQ historic district—the appeal requested a full environmental impact review (EIR) for the project due to its impacts on historic resources relating to the city's LGBTQ social and cultural history.

The historic resources in question include the former locations of the The Old Crow, one of the first gay bars in San Francisco, as well as other now-closed gay bars like the Pirate's Den, The Landmark Room and The Silver Rail—which would all be demolished with the project's approval. The appeal also sought to preserve a series of alleged tunnels that reportedly run beneath the existing buildings and were used in the 1930s to allow LGBTQ individuals to skirt police raids and bar hop undetected.

Old Crow at 962 Market St. | PHOTO: WILLIAM LIPSKY/FACEBOOK

During the hearing, Planning Department staff member Melinda Hue stated that the preliminary environmental review did analyze the project's potential impacts on LGBTQ social and cultural historic resources and "determined that the impacts would be less than significant."

However, "The project sponsor has agreed to implement an improvement measure to develop an interpretative program to commemorate the former LGBTQ bars in the buildings on the project site and their association with LGBTQ history of the neighborhood and city," Hue said.

Concluding her presentation, Hue called for the Planning Commission to "uphold the preliminary mitigated negative declaration."

Brian Basinger speaking before the Planning Commission. | IMAGE: SFGovTV

Basinger then spoke about the appeal, explaining that Q Foundation filed the appeal "because we feel there is insufficient analysis of the very important LGBT resources on that site."

If the buildings are allowed to be torn down, Basinger said he's "concerned about the implications of the loss of these historic resources to our proposed historic district."

While they are not against development and the project in full, Basinger said they would like to have more time to research the impacts of demolishing the buildings. "We are requesting a full EIR so that we can have the scholarship, have the thorough professional research to have clear answers about what would the loss of these resources mean to the Compton's LGBT Historic District," said Basinger.

Over the past week, conflicting information has surfaced regarding the tunnels Basinger and team sought to preserve. During the hearing, Basinger said, "There's new information that everybody is really excited about and we need to explore it and that's the tunnels that connected a lot of those businesses."

However, CBS reporter Joe Vasquez walked through the site's basement earlier in the week and found no evidence that the property connects any other buildings with underground tunnels.

That report does contrast with a San Francisco Chronicle article published in 2000, titled "Where History Was Made/ A Tour of 41 points of gay interest all across the city," in which a reference is made to the presence of tunnels underneath The Silver Rail (974 Market St).

The article states that patrons would "outsmart the cops by going into a series of underground tunnels that connected the bars along the strip." 

Legacy business and preservation activist Nate Allbee, who had submitted the photos of the supposed tunnels on the day of the hearing, spoke after Basinger, stating, "What is before us today is the question: What is worth preserving?"

During the hearing, Commissioner Dennis Richards also revealed that he supplied Allbee with the photos, which he took during a site visit ahead of the hearing.

Nate Allbee speaking about historical preservation. | IMAGE: SFGovTV

Addressing the commission, Allbee said he took issue with the PMND and felt that there were some serious omissions. "The PMND also fails to define what the actual boundaries of the Compton's Historic District will be. That makes a huge difference in determining whether or not these assets are important to the community."

Allbee also reiterated that "we're not anti development and we're not completely against this project, but we shouldn't be losing our LGBT history or the chance of the country's first trans historic district just because it's bad timing."

Once public comment opened for the appeal, many local drag queens, performers and Tenderloin residents spoke in favor of the appeal.

Mica Sigourney speaking at the Planning Commission meeting. | IMAGE: SFGovTV

One of those speakers, calling for a full environmental review, was Mica Sigourney, aka drag queen VivvyAnne ForeverMORE. You might recall, Sigourney is one of the key members behind the member co-op to save The Stud bar in SOMA.

Sigourney, who's also a bartender at nearby Aunt Charlie's Lounge, spoke about the effects of development on queer culture and history. "To put it plainly," says Sigourney, "please don't erase my past or disregard it or put it second to development."

Many of the people who spoke in favor of the project reiterated the fact that the building no longer resembles the former LGBTQ businesses that resided there, and that the city should support the actual businesses that are there today, like Aunt Charlie's. We should "preserve living, existing gay bars, not preserve ghosts of the past," one such speaker argued.

In the end, commissioners Myrna Melgar, Kathrin Moore and Dennis Richards voted in support of the appeal. Commissioners Rodney Fong, Richard Hillis, Christine Johnson and Joe Koppel voted against the appeal. The commission then approved the development plans in a 6-1 vote.

Basinger and the Q Foundation will now bring their appeal to the full Board of Supervisors. Basinger tells Hoodline that they have roughly one month to file the paperwork. After that, "We'll need a huge showing at the Board of Supervisors," Basinger says.

A hearing before the Board of Supervisors has not yet been scheduled. Hoodline will keep you updated with any new information.

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