UPDATE: The Armory's permit request has been approved. See below.
At 14th and Mission Street, the San Francisco Armory was built over 100 years ago as an arsenal for the National Guard. Lately, however, the imposing brick structure has been under siege from complaints about noise and staff misconduct amidst its bid to become a major music venue booked by concert giant Live Nation.
On March 28, dozens of neighbors appeared at the Armory for a community meeting to air concerns ahead of an Entertainment Commission hearing scheduled for Tuesday, April 5, when nightlife regulators will consider anointing it a fully permitted Place of Entertainment with regularly scheduled events. The Armory, which houses a 4,000-capacity event space known as Drill Court, is currently authorized to host just one show per month.
At the meeting, Peter Acworth -- who bought the property in 2006 to headquarter his BDSM-oriented pornography site Kink.com -- and business partner Mark Meagher attempted to assuage the concerns of locals, who reported a spate of broken windows, rattling picture frames, and upturned port-o-potties in recent months as the Armory increased its electronic music programming.
A spreadsheet obtained through a public records request [.PDF] shows that neighbors have lodged dozens of individual complaints against what one nearby resident dubbed the “EDM castle.”
One neighbor who manages apartments next door said through a translator that, following a recent performance by Swedish house-music DJ Eric Prydz, attendees threw bottles at her building. “[The Armory] doesn’t think about the fact that people have to work,” she said, echoing concerns about Acworth and Meagher’s stated intent to regularly host shows running as late as 2am, and even later on special occasions. The business partners declined to estimate how many events the Armory looks to host overall, though past press releases have described a venue to rival the Masonic or the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Acworth and Meagher have an interesting motivation for partnering with Live Nation: in November, a state ballot initiative will allow voters to decide whether or not to require condom use in porn produced in California. Should the initiative pass, which would incentivize Kink.com to relocate its studios to Nevada, transforming the Armory into another revenue-generating use would be especially urgent for its owners. (For its part, Live Nation does not yet have a mid-sized venue in San Francisco viably capable of hosting loud EDM acts, which regularly sell out the 7,000-capacity Bill Graham Civic Auditorium booked by rival promotion company Another Planet Entertainment.)
Acworth and Meagher conceded that the venue had been ill-equipped for select recent shows and outlined a noise-reduction plan involving the installation of entrance vestibules and decibel-limiting gear, along with increased and strategic deployment of security guards. But many of the aggrieved neighbors at the meeting -- a diverse coalition of homeowners, artists, and Spanish-speaking residents -- doubted the promises.
Moreover, they doubted meaningful enforcement by the Entertainment Commission, namely because the Armory employs Entertainment Commissioner Audrey Joseph as Events Director, a role in which records show she grossed over $100,000 last year. Additionally, under Joseph's leadership, the Armory appears to have knowingly hosted several unpermitted events in February with impunity.
“It seems like they’ve taken liberties with their current permitting at the expense of the neighborhood,” said Sandra Davis, speaking with KQED. Davis has lived within a block of the Armory for 20 years, and “it’s almost like they were pushing the boundaries to see what they could get away with, and now they want even more latitude. And with the events director who’s also a commissioner?... We don’t know if we can trust the process.”
In February, "pushing the boundaries" took the form of the Armory hosting four shows in that month, despite having received permit approval from the Entertainment Commission for only one of them. Davis and other neighbors suggested that the transgression illustrates how Joseph’s role at the Armory appears to shield the venue from regulatory oversight.
In a prepared statement, a representative of the Armory wrote that the venue “did not want to go forward” with the unpermitted events, but that canceling the shows would have resulted in a potentially costly breach of contract with the promoter, Live Nation. Thus, the Armory brazenly proceeded.
Records show that representatives of the Armory sought permits for only two of the four events, and that the Entertainment Commission granted only one, as per the venue’s longstanding restrictions. Emails obtained through a public records request [.PDF] also seem to validate neighbors’ concerns about conflicts of interest, a topic that’s dogged the commission almost since its founding.
In an email to the Armory regarding a special permit application for two events on Feb. 12 and 13, Jocelyn Kane, Executive Director of the Entertainment Commission, wrote to approve just one, for Feb. 12. Kane added special mention that “I hope [Joseph] indicated that she and I spoke about permitting that one only.”
For Joseph -- who’s required to recuse herself from all Armory matters that appear before the commission -- to act as liaison between her employer and the regulatory body of which she’s a member appears questionable in light of city ethics rules and the commission’s Statement of Incompatible Activities.
Kane, reached by phone, argued that it’s normal for commissioners to interact with “promoters,” referring to her colleague. She acknowledged, however, that the Armory and Joseph appear to have knowingly thrown unpermitted events. Is it especially inappropriate for a venue with a commissioner on its payroll to flout regulation? “It’s inappropriate for anybody to do something without a permit,” Kane says.
Asked whether or not neighbors’ objections and the Armory’s permitting infractions will elicit repercussions at the hearing tomorrow, Kane replies, “Is there judgment from my standpoint as a regulator? Absolutely. People should expect to see potential consequences.”
In a report from September of last year, KQED found that Joseph, who did not attend the community meeting and declined comment for this article, appears to have inappropriately interacted with the SF Planning Department on the Armory’s behalf in 2015.
UPDATE: The Entertainment Commission approved the Armory's permit request in a hugely attended, three-hour hearing Tuesday night. Kink.com CEO Peter Ackworth apologized to the Entertainment Commission for holding the unpermitted concerts, stating that "those events were too loud and we made a mistake. There's no question about that." The Armory insists it will turn the volume down and increase security at future concerts. Neighbor Amanda Gregory echoed critics in saying that "it's a little hard to trust that the Armory is actually going to follow through with what they say they're going to do after they've thrown three shows where they didn't have a permit."
Also on Tuesday, Supervisor David Campos publicly withdrew his support for the Armory's permit request, specifically citing KQED's coverage as a determining factor.
UPDATE: On April 18, Inspector Sean D. Burke of the Entertainment Commission found that the Armory in fact hosted three unpermitted events in February -- not two, as previously reported -- and fined the Armory a total of $150 for the violations. [PDF]