Dungeons and land-use dragons 

OK, this is so stereotypically San Francisco that you wonder if you didn’t already see it on Bill O’Reilly’s show. The City’s cavernous old armory, idle for years and thwarted by politics from becoming much-needed housing, finds itself deeded to a pornmeister. Can Talking Points from television’s principal Bay Area scold be far behind?

We wouldn’t want to second-guess or put ideas into the heads of O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel producers. Maybe they tire of the kind of story that almost caricatures itself. But it happened, and there’s enough of a furor about it locally that The City might be spared national opprobrium out of respect for the righteous residents who have risen up in protest.

The story behind the sexy story has more to do with The City’s land-use philosophy. There might not be much prurience there, but the controversial transaction raises fundamental questions about urban planning.

The American Gothic-style building, all 190,000 square feet of it, was built in 1912 at Mission and 14th streets to accommodate the National Guard. Abandoned in 1975, it was purchased from the state by a private developer 11 years later. The sale ran afoul of Mission district activists who, opposed to the "gentrification" that market-rate dwellings would supposedly bring, blocked the new owner’s laudable plan to increase housing stock in The City.

Activists also killed a productive plan to place a server farm and office space in the massive structure, so the developer dropped it back on the real estate market, where it has stood, padlocked and vandalized, since the dot-com bust. Enter Kink.com, a Web-based porn distributor with plans to produce fetish films in the armory’s dark, dungeonlike quarters. Fourteen and a half million dollars sealed the purchase.

This time the outrage is different. The Mission Merchants Association questions the speed and stealth with which the sale was consummated. Area families as well are furious, there being a school situated one block away. Aren’t these the kinds of frictions that justify land-use regulation in the first place?

More than three decades ago the late professor Bernard Siegan, in his landmark book "Land Use without Zoning," studied Houston, Texas, a teeming modern metropolis that historically honored property rights and a free real estate market more than most comparable American cities. Siegan’s surprise finding: Houston without zoning showed no more abrupt and disturbing changes in land use than cities wedded to zoning, and all without the cost and corruption that marred those other cities.

San Francisco makes much of its status as the land-use antithesis of Houston (which was capacious and big-hearted enough to absorb New Orleans’ Katrina victims). And yet The City can accept a porn palace near a school, unthinkingly aggravating neighborhood tensions? Why regulate?

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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