Evil godless rock-and-rollers’ unholy metal rampage on Nob Hill halted by — paperwork

Hey, hey, my my. Rock and roll will never die — but it is quite possible for rock and roll to be forced to wait outside the arena, twiddling its long-nailed thumbs for 6-9 months, treading rock water while a paperwork issue is resolved. Yes, it was paper that killed the rock and roll star, paper that’s put the brakes on a $750,000 project and forced one of the nation’s largest concert promoters to hold off booking major music shows at the Masonic Auditorium until possibly the fall.

Maybe it was paper that Jimi choked on too. Who knows?

Last year, concert promoter Live Nation struck a deal with food provider Wolfgang Puck and the Masons, who in between secretly running global finance also own the 50-year old auditorium/exhibition hall complex next to Grace Cathedral. Live Nation would get a 10-year lease to run events at the property — exactly how many nobody can say, but we’ll get to that later — and the Masonic Center would be greatly upgraded: a full, real kitchen rather than a warming kitchen, a full liquor license, and a drastically-revamped main auditorium hall with removeable seating to allow general-admission rock-and-roll shows as well as dignified, evening wear tablecloth-and-beverage service fetes.

The Department of Building Inspection OK’d the work order in September of last year. Problem is, according to everybody, nobody thought to include the Planning Department, who does not at all appreciate being left out. Following an Antony and the Johnsons show in February, Planning revoked the building permit while it conducts a traffic flow study, putting Live Nation’s rock and roll dreams on hold.

So who forgot to invite the zoning folks?

Live Nation’s contention is that DBI should have forwarded the project to Planning, and “they (DBI) didn’t do it,” said Steven Vettel, a downtown lawyer retained by Live Nation. Live Nation now hopes the 3-4 month-long construction phase can begin by summer, but won’t know when it can start going through the Planning Commission until the traffic flow study is done (maybe another week or two).

Though Live Nation hoped to be done with its remodeling now, and booking big-name acts throughout the spring and summer (now, according to its schedule, only comic Lisa Lampanelli is slated to perform at the venue), the promoter won’t seek lost revenues from DBI or the city, and that “nobody is to blame,” according to Vettel.

“It just happened.”

DBI says that the original scope of the plan — removing seating, not adding seating — meant that Planning didn’t need to get involved, according to William Strawn, DBI spokesman.

“Had they talked about ‘expanding or increasing’ seating, that would have changed capacity and would have signalled to our Plan Check staff the possible need for Planning review,” Strawn wrote in an e-mail. “In short, DBI followed its normal procedure. While I haven’t seen what Planning’s concern was to request its separate review, I know that that does sometimes happen.”

Of course, that’s if Live Nation’s contention — that drastically reconfiguring their event space, adding a “bona fide eating place” with full liquor license and renting out the space as many nights out of the year as it can — doesn’t constitute an “intensification of use.” To say that the jury is out on that point is an understatement.

Jim Miller, the city planner in charge of that stretch of Nob Hill, receives on average 2-3 pieces of mail daily from Nob Hillers voicing their opinion on the project. The letters are a joy to read — “erudite” missives speaking of “bedlam” and “the destruction of peaceful Nob Hill” — and almost entirely in opposition to Live Nation’s plans.

Several key words govern how Planning staff and ultimately the commission will rule on the project: the new rock palace must be deemed “necessary, desirable, and compatible” in order to get the green light.

From Planning’s standpoint, what could ultimately make or break the project is whether or not Live Nation can prove that pulling in more people won’t bring more cars up Nob Hill’s steep slopes, circling around, going up and down looking for parking.

There are 565 parking spaces at the Masonic Center, yes — but 200-300 of them are rented out by monthly parkers, and, Miller points out, if the Center charges $30-50 to park for event as it has in the past, deal-seeking parkers won’t park there — they will circle around, go up, down and around, and enough cars doing that equals a change in the use.
“It could lead to gridlock in the area,” Miller points out, and gridlock on steep streets populated by hotel-goers is unlikely to be deemed necessary, compatible or desirable. (Imagine the toll even if everyone takes the cable car to the show.)

According to Live Nation, ripping out half of the seats in the auditorium — there would be 1,306 seats remaining in the balcony, according to documents on file at the Planning Department — would only increase the venue’s capacity by 335 people, up from around 3,200 to 3,500. That number’s been disputed by land use attorney Alice Barkley, who, along with PR maven Alex Tourk, has been retained by Nob Hill neighbors in a coordinated effort to preserve their idyllic, tranquil urban haven from the evil gods of rock-n-roll. They say the number is closer to 500 — and without a strict fire code limit on general-admission capacity, it doesn’t tax the mind to imagine as many as 5,000 rock-and-rollers squeezing in shoulder-to-shoulder, a figure anti-Live Nation Nob Hillers are happy to throw around.

There’s more. Live Nation is contractually-obligated to let performers’ tour buses idle outside of the venue on California Street, to run their generators and allow them to do rock and roll-type things. They also need to use the California Street handicap access ramp to load and unload gear and equipment for various shows. Live Nation promises that electrical hookups will be provided for buses to eliminate the need for long-term idling, and that no bus will be allowed to park overnight.

However, as Miller pointed out, promises can be broken, especially if they’re not codified — which they almost certainly will be, if and when the project ever sees the Planning Commission.

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