Game on, San Francisco. City Hall no longer at war against Pac-Man and Donkey Kong

By Dan Raile , written on May 20, 2014

From The News Desk

When  Shawn Vergera and Tiffny Chung, the owners of San Francisco’s Blackbird Bar, were poring over paperwork relating to opening a second establishment, they found an inconvenient glitch in the city’s Planning Code.

The new bar has a couple of gimmicks. First, it will serve only beer and wine and, second, it'll offer an armada of arcade games. As SFGate gleefully points out, that would make it a "barcade."

Unfortunately, it was that second gimmick that threatened to screw everything up. It appears that San Francisco’s interventionist law makers of the 1930’s foresaw a grim future where the working class piddled away their hard-won coin on “mechanized amusement devices”. To save the city from the imminent pinball zombie hordes, the police department enacted some hardboiled regulations.

While the principle target of the code seems to have been slot machines or other gambling devices, it was sufficiently broad and vague enough to restrict the progress of Mr. and Mrs. Pacman in San Francisco. In the 1980’s, the code was updated to specifically apply to arcade games, to ward off the menace of arcade-related teenage truancy.

As it stands, the code forbids any establishment from having more than 11 “mechanized amusement devices,” and the exact number allowed at a particular site is a function of the square-footage – unless the Board of Supervisors makes an exception via resolution or ordinance.

Neither the gambling nor the teens-gone-wild concerns have any bearing on what Vergera and Chung had in mind, since their machines wouldn’t pay out and they’d proposed to open a 21-plus establishment. But it constrained them nonetheless.

That’s when the pair reached out to their district supervisor, Scott Wiener. Vergera says he’d met Wiener before at events held at Blackbird, and when he contacted him about the barcade idea, the supervisor was immediately supportive and promised to help.

On May 2, Wiener and Supervisor London Breed, who represents the adjacent Western Addition and Hayes Valley neighborhoods, passed a resolution exempting the Upper Market district from the strictest part of the code. It passed, so as of right now the proposed barcade can have as many as 10 machines.

But on June 5, Wiener will bring an ordinance to hearing that would provide a permanent, city-wide fix. His office told Pando that they are being careful to ensure that the wording doesn’t result in a proliferation of video poker or other undesirable mechanized amusements. But the idea is to roll back the codified bias against video games, removing a roadblock for a local business in the process.

“I’m really surprised by the quick response from the supervisor’s office and their amazing support,” says Vergera.

This quaint story of responsive government bucks a couple of common perceptions of San Francisco government.

San Francisco has a reputation as a place where the planning department can put a major hitch in your business plans. Common wisdom is that San Francisco’s economic success happens in spite of itself.

In recent years, there has been a noted trend of city officials facilitating business. The most visible instance of this is the mayor-sanctioned payroll tax exemption that landed Twitter in its current Market St. campus.

The Twitter deal cemented San Francisco’s participation in the current wave of the “tech” economy, signalling that City Hall supported innovative companies and would fight to keep it here. But as the fallout from astronomical rent increases has churned up social unease over the past several months, the deal is also a touchstone for those accusing San Francisco’s government of favoring “tech” over the general public.

The barcade story provides a timely counterexample to that narrative. Here a small local business engaged their representative and got quick relief through legislative action. (Fortunately, the code itself provided an avenue for such immediate action in this case, which isn’t always so.) But the image of city government as a hellish warren of bureaucracy, only kept at bay by backdoor handshakes between officials and the titans of industry could use a little update.

Over at the Planning Department, there are plenty of signs of a change of style for those who squint hard enough to see them. In recent years the department has been proactive in clearing away outdated hurdles that keep the city from addressing the current housing crisis. They’ve rezoned a hefty chunk of the city for residential development. They’ve worked with the Board and the Mayor’s office to remove housing density restrictions, minimum square-footage requirements, and moved to legalize existing in-law units and incentivize homeowners to build new ones.

Kearstin Dischinger, senior community planning specialist at the Planning Dept, concedes that tackling the housing crisis is a balancing act. “San Francisco is a very thoughtful place, but sometimes you get all these thoughtful considerations in a layer cake that jams the system,” she says.

None of these planning fixes immediately solves the housing problem. The opening of a barcade will do little to quell the ire of the displaced and marginalized. But neither do these trends match the narrative of City Hall becoming a provider of services exclusively to the “tech” sector, squashing “real San Francisco” under a boot-heel.

Next time you have a problem with your city government, you might try calling them.

[Image via wikimedia]