Garcia: Porn king scores only-in-S.F. victory 

One of San Francisco’s most interesting and majestic buildings hasn’t been occupied for 36 years — which should tell you that things don’t often work smoothly in a town that places politics above practicality.

Yet it’s not often that an unfolding story so clearly reveals a city’s backward stance as much as that involving the historic State Armory building in the Mission district. It’s a classic tale of a city getting what it deserves.

In this case, San Francisco is getting spanked, whipped and hogtied. And it appears helpless to do anything about it except perhaps listen to some of the neighbors complain.

Maybe the grand, Moorish-influenced building should be renamed the Irony, for there’s no denying the result of San Francisco’s negative, sense-defying, obstructionist politics. In about a week, the interior of the building will serve as the backdrop for the first fetish porn film brought to you by its new owner, Kink.com founder Peter Acworth.

Acworth seems a bit amused by all the attention he’s received since The Examiner first reported that the landmark armory was purchased by the growing porn company for $14.5 million in December, ending three decades of battles over the site’s future. More than a dozen attempts to turn the 200,000-square-foot building into a commercial center or a housing development were beaten by area activists for reasons ranging from the threat of gentrification to the lack of community ties.

But now there will be ties of a different kind, since Acworth’s company specializes in bondage and domination videos. And though some neighborhood groups have voiced complaints, there appears to be little they can do to prevent it. For one of the interesting twists in the tale is that because Acworth does not plan to make any structural changes to the armory, no special permit changes are required and he can pretty much do what he wants inside the grand brick structure.

And rarely has a building found its perfect master. I toured the armory with Acworth last week and its castlelike qualities — which include an underground stream, basement-level stables, Gothic corners and prison-style windows — are perfectly suited to his commercial vision. In his production studio at Fifth and Mission streets, designers have to build the dark and scary sets. That won’t be necessary at the armory. The planning code contains no moral statutes.

"It has all sorts of creepy spaces,’’ Acworth told me, "which of course fits perfectly with what we do.’’

Acworth is an intelligent and affable chap who has made a fortune in the world of pay-per-view fetish porn. A graduate of Cambridge University in his native England, Acworth was a doctoral student in business at Columbia when he happened to discover that people could make money by posting pictures on the Internet. He soon turned his own sexual interests into a subscription-only Web site, and 10 years later it has grown into an enterprise that, according to reports, makes more than $16 million annually.

The armory has a cavernous drill court where the National Guard used to train that Acworth is hoping to rent out to other film production companies. It has four upper floors that will someday hold his company’s headquarters, but for now it will just include some sets for his films.

At the behest of the Planning Department, Acworth has diligently been meeting with neighborhood groups, including the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, which has been the primary group that has worked feverishly to stop retail and housing proposals from filling the armory’s cavernous spaces.Not all the local merchants and neighbors are thrilled about the idea of a porn film studio in their midst — but in reality nobody outside the buildings walls will be able to see what’s going on inside. And in free-for-all San Francisco, where acceptance is everything, it would be hard to envision any concerted campaign to stop something that already takes places in buildings around town.

Acworth has inherited a situation that couldn’t be scripted. He has purchased an S&M dream house in the district where he lives. He has promised to hire local actors for his productions and to keep the kinkier aspects of his business away from prying eyes, as well as doing more than $1 million in maintenance to a building badly in need of it.

Besides, Acworth said, the armory will be perfect for his company’s branding.

I asked him if by that he meant marketing.

"Oh yes, we have strict rules about stuff like that,’’ he told me. "No needles, knives, nothing like that.’’

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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