San Francisco

San Francisco Activists Are Trying to Stop Business Owner From Converting His Arcade Repair Shop Into a Normal Arcade

Neighbors say Joey Mucha's plans for a Skee-Ball arcade in the Mission would be a positive addition to the community. Activists disagree.

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San Francisco business owner Joey Mucha wants to convert an arcade repair shop he owns into a simple arcade and restaurant space, a use his property is already zoned for. Yet he has been stymied by neighborhood activists who argue that his project will further contribute to the gentrification of the Mission District.

With the help of the city's notoriously cumbersome planning process, these activists have delayed Mucha's project for months already, and they might succeed in killing it off entirely. Should that happen, his arcade will become yet another promising business idea snuffed out by a pervasive NIMBYism that is trying to freeze America's cities in place.

"I'm hemorrhaging money at the moment to keep my employees on [and] to weather this storm," Mucha tells Reason."If this gets voted down, I will likely have to slim down my already-small business to survive, to support my family."

Opposing Mucha's plan is Kevin Ortiz—an activist affiliated with local anti-gentrification groups Cultural Action Network (CAN) and United to Save the Mission (USM)—who has asked the city's planning commission to stop Mucha from setting up an arcade.

An arcade space, Ortiz has argued in planning applications and in the press, will cost the neighborhood valuable repair space and the blue collar jobs that come with it—all so wealthy newcomers to the city can have yet another place to party.

Come Thursday, the commission—which has absolute say over most building permits—will decide whether Mucha can go ahead with his plans for his property, or if he'll have to abandon them entirely.

Mucha's request for a permit for his arcade should have been a relatively straightforward affair: His family already owns the property in question. The only occupant of the building was his own arcade rental business, Joey the Cat, which uses the space to store and service a collection of Skee-Ball, pinball, and Whac-A-Mole machines. The site is already zoned to allow for arcade and restaurant use, meaning it doesn't require special variances or conditional use permits. On top of that, most of the neighbors are OK with Mucha's plan to add additional public space to the neighborhood.

Not being able to move ahead with his arcade would be both a financial hardship and a personal tragedy.

Mucha says he got into the arcade business almost by accident when he purchased a used Skee-Ball machine off eBay for $500 a decade ago so that he could hone his skills to play in a Skee-Ball league.

"I practiced on it, and figured out how it worked. I disassembled it and reassembled it," he tells Reason, saying that he soon started to rent out the machine to clients of the start-up firm he worked at, where he had a marketing job.

His side gig proved profitable enough that he started buying more machines and placing them in bars and restaurants around town. Eventually, he quit his day job, and made arcade rentals his full-time occupation.

At first, he ran the business out of his apartment, then a shipping container storage area, and, after that, out of a section of a city-owned warehouse. In 2014, with the help of his family, he purchased his current building on 19th Street in the Mission from the owner-operator of an autobody shop who has since retired.

Having his own space allowed Mucha's business to offer another service: private events.

"That happened organically. We've got these games, we fix them up, they're staged here ready to go out to bars and events, why don't we see if people want to come play them," says Mucha, who started renting out his repair space for corporate off-site retreats, non-profit events, and even neighbors' birthday parties.

These events required Mucha to get permits from the San Francisco Fire Department and Entertainment Commission, which he did.

But despite his property being zoned to allow for arcade use, the site's past use as an auto body shop required him to get a change of use permit—something he didn't have, and without which his private events were technically illegal.

In March 2018, a complaint was filed against Mucha for hosting private events at his business. A July 2018-dated notice of enforcement from the Planning Department informed Mucha that, while a game arcade was allowed at his property, he would still need to obtain a change of use permit to convert it from a production, distribution, and repair use.

Realizing he'd need to go through the city's labyrinthine planning process, Mucha hired a permit expeditor, and together they started trying to abate the planning department's complaint.

At first, he tried to get his building converted to some sort of trade shop that would allow him to keep his repair operations onsite while still hosting private events. That, he says, proved unworkable.

Instead, Mucha decided he would move the repair portion of his business to a different location and convert his 19th Street place to a public arcade and restaurant space—a major undertaking.

"We are talking about a $1-million-dollar project," he says. "We're talking structural [change], build a mezzanine, build a kitchen, build four bathrooms, redo the entryway, cover up all these building and code things."

In April, he filed an application with the Planning Department for permission to change the use of his building and perform these extensive renovations.

On June 25, the Planning Department issued a notice informing the public that if they objected to Mucha's permit application they'd have the standard 30 days to file for discretionary review.

Discretionary review is a process through which any member of the public can ask San Francisco's Planning Commission—a seven-member appointed body that oversees the Planning Department—to review the application for a permit.

Even if a permit application complies with all laws on the books, as Mucha's does, the Planning Commission still has the authority to deny the permit, or condition its approval on the applicant agreeing to do things not otherwise required by the zoning code or city regulations.

The discretionary review process is frequently used and abused by NIMBYs and activists to stop or delay disfavored projects, whether that's a falafel shop, an apartment building, or a single-family home. Even if a request for discretionary review is denied, it can still hold up a project by months.

That is exactly what has happened to Mucha.

On the last possible day, Ortiz filed an application for a discretionary review, listing a number of reasons why he thought Mucha's arcade would be bad for the neighborhood.

"One of the main threats to the Mission and its working-class and Latino families who are being driven out by gentrification right now is the conversions from blue-collar work sites and community-serving sites to destination and party sites for wealthier newcomers to the city," reads Ortiz's application. "This proposal is a quintessential example of this problem and will contribute to further displacement impacts."

Ortiz also complains that Mucha had already marketed his space for corporate events, and hosted parties from both Google and Uber.

In further comments to the online publication Mission Local, Ortiz explained that he thought yet another alcohol-serving business in the Mission would increase property crime and bring more traffic to the area.

"It's not designed for families," he said to Mission Local. (Reason reached out to Ortiz for comment, but received no reply.)

These kinds of complaints are common from CAN and USM activists, which often argue against new development on the grounds that it will sacrifice the traditionally working-class character of the predominately Hispanic neighborhood for the benefit of rich techies.

A quick scan of USM's Facebook page shows they've organized numerous protests against all sorts of projects this year, including a new cannabis lounge, a new gym, a new office building, and new housing.

Come Thursday, the group will assemble at city hall to oppose Mucha's project, which their Facebook event describes as contributing to the "Disneyfication" of the neighborhood.

Mucha disputes this characterization of his business as an agent of gentrification, saying that in addition to corporate events, he's hosted community groups, birthday parties for kids, and neighborhood gatherings.

It's a characterization that rankles some of the neighbors too, including Marlene Samson, who owns the janitorial business next door. Samson, a lifelong Mission resident, says that everyone from her nieces to her mother to neighborhood nuns have participated in events at Mucha's business.

"One of my nieces went to the venue for a child's party and it went off without a hitch. The kids had to be pulled out of there, they didn't want to go home," Samson tells Reason. "How much more neighborhood can you be when you have the nuns and the kids…and all the neighborhood people there?"

Samson submitted a letter of support for Mucha's project to the planning commission, as have a number of other businesses, nonprofits, the Mission Merchant Association, and even California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who had met Mucha previously (and wrote to say that she was "impressed by Mr. Mucha's entrepreneurship" and that she "support[s] his vision to transform the space").

Ortiz, as mentioned, filed his discretionary review application in late July, but Mucha's project didn't end up getting scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing until November 7. A public notice of the hearing was issued by the Planning Department on October 18.

However, when Mucha showed up to the planning commission on November 7, Ortiz was not present. A Facebook post dated that same day pictures him attending the California Alcohol Policy Alliance's annual summit in Los Angeles, which was held on the same day.

Another project opponent, who identified herself as Spike Kahn, was present on the day, but asked commissioners to delay the hearing as she had just heard about the project that morning, and needed more time to prepare.

This is despite an October 30-dated Planning Department packet on the discretionary review hearing listing a Spike Kahn as already having sent a letter opposing the project. (Given that this is San Francisco, it is improbable but not impossible there are two different people named Spike opposing the same project.)

Mucha pleaded with the commissioners to go ahead with proceedings anyways, saying he had been trying to legalize his business for over a year and that further delays would cost him time and money he didn't have.

Instead, planning commissioners voted 3-2 to postpone the hearing to this Thursday.

Mucha describes the postponement as a deliberate pressure tactic, saying "any delay can be catastrophic for my business.

Even if that's not the case, it is remarkable that despite it being Mucha's business up for discussion at the hearing, most of the commissioners decided to privilege the interests of his opponents in the planning process—one of whom hadn't bothered to show up, and the other of whom showed up supposedly unprepared, even though they were identified as a project opponent a week before the hearing.

For most of the time that his project has been working its way through the planning process, Mucha has been unable to host private events—events which he says had up as much as 40 percent of his revenue.

Fortunately, in early October, the Planning Department gave him temporary permission to host twice-weekly events during November and December while his permanent change of use application worked its way through the planning process.

That, says Mucha, is helping him stay afloat. Should his application to convert his space into an arcade get rejected, Mucha predicts that he will have to let his two employees go and return to being a sole proprietor.

But what rankles him the most about the process, he says, is the accusation that his business won't be family-friendly.

"I just had a kid. I live on the block," he says. "Why would I try to make a space that isn't family-friendly when I'm raising a family within 200 feet?"

Barring further delays, Thursday's hearing will decide the fate of Mucha's business. Win or lose, his story is yet another example of how the city's planning process forces business owners to go through hell just so they can eke out a living.

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  1. Everything needs to stay the same. That’s progressive!

    1. Which explains why much of what used to be the Soviet Union is finally moving out of the early 20th century and slowly into the 21st century. It’s interesting to go into a shop after shop and have the women behind the counter figure out how much you owe on a huge wooden abacus.

      1. Q: What did socialists have before they got candles?
        A: LED and Fluorescent lights.

    2. What happened to America now? Those left-Activists really scary

  2. New and improved arcade machine repair shop – now with public quality control testing!

  3. Where do all these far-left NGOs get their money?

    1. Soros

      1. I thought the same, but it seems he is far more interested in local politics, like district attorneys.

  4. People who try and start businesses in San Francisco at this point are like women who marry Saudi Arabian men and move to Saudi Arabia. Yeah, the way Saudi Arabia treats women is horrible. But you can’t say that any woman who gets married and moves there doesn’t know what she is in for. The same is true of business owners in San Francisco. The city is run by violent, fanatical retards. Anyone who lives there or tries to start a business there knows the risks.

    1. Geez. I know this guy has been busting his butt for decades, building his business, but it’s hard to sympathize with people still in San Fran after seeing which way it has been headed, for years.

      Next they will be throwing buckets of hot diarrhea on the citizens.

      1. I heard that they have a law that says hot diarrhea can only be thrown on business owners, and then, only after a third-party arms-length valuation has shown that their business is profitable.

    2. At least Saudi Arabia has made some progress on the women’s rights front in the last few years. (although they are still bad) San Fransisco has probably gotten worse, if anything. They are all about finding new and creative ways to f with businesses and individuals.

    3. He lives there. Only two hundred feet away from that space. At some point a man shouldn’t have to move his home to open a business in a lot that he owns.

      Blaming the man for this is stupid.

      1. Women shouldn’t have to wear a burka in public. That, however, doesn’t make women who voluntarily go to Saudi Arabia any brighter. This guy make his choices. It is not like he didn’t know.

        1. I’m sympathetic to anyone who fights the good fight, even in a small capacity. Most people just want to live their lives, and they tend not to notice or think much about government until it takes a shit on them. I don’t see that as a moral failing.

      2. Someone has to push back on this shit.

        1. He should try to dam up the pacific ocean. It would be easier.

    4. Pretty much how I see things.

      This is what you get with one-party governance I reckon.

      1. It’s what you get with leftism. These people are the new church ladies!

  5. *cranks amp up to 11*

    Burn down The Mission
    If we’re gonna stay alive
    Watch the black smoke fly to heaven
    See the red flame light the sky

  6. “One of the main threats to the Mission and its working-class and Latino families who are being driven out by gentrification right now is the conversions from blue-collar work sites and community-serving sites to destination and party sites for wealthier newcomers to the city,”

    It’s getting so bad now that a man can even take a dump in the street!

    1. I thought that quote was weird too. If this guy were to just close his business, would that be better?

      1. It’s unlikely he thought that far ahead, or he wants this guy to be forced to keep his business open operating at a loss.

        I’d like to believe the former, but it’s probably the latter.

        1. He’s probably convinced that anyone running a business always has piles of cash just lying around. It’s got to be a progressive maxim — profit means there is infinite money lying around.

          1. Not long after I opened my training business I had an employee once tell me he wanted a raise because he counted up all the dog in doggie daycare and he realized all the money I was making. I told him, “See those two dogs over there? They pay your wage. Those 4 dogs over there? They pay the rent for today. Those 2 dogs? Cleaning supplies. Those 4 dogs? Electricty.” And on and on. By the time I was done, there were no dogs left that were “profit” for me.

            My profit, I said, comes from the dogs I train unless there weren’t enough daycare dogs to pay for the business costs in which case, I get no pay. Basically, I’m getting paid the salary of a dog trainer but I run the business for free. Of course, I eventually built it up enough to earn a “profit” but I see it as payback for the few years when I was just breaking even or putting my own money into the business. Those two concepts- starting a business costs money and running a business costs money- are lost on most people.

        2. Presumably they’re hoping to force him out of business, and that a new auto body shop will magically open there and employ a half dozen locals.

      2. Should have opened a crack house, that would de gentrify the place

      3. “If this guy were to just close his business, would that be better?”

        Doesn’t matter. Petty tyrants gotta tyrant.

  7. This is the second most ridiculous San Fran thing I have read this week. https://www.wsj.com/articles/revolutionary-san-francisco-11573602909

  8. Of course, if the “wealthier newcomers” don’t come around and spend their money in the neighborhood, that proves they’re racists.

    1. And if they do come around, it’s only to see how those brown-skinned people live, that proves their racist.

      1. And that their grammar is sometimes a little off.

  9. dudes the party’s better on the Oaktown side.

  10. Opposing Mucha’s plan is Kevin Ortiz—an activist affiliated with local anti-gentrification groups Cultural Action Network (CAN) and United to Save the Mission (USM)

    Uh, it reads like Oritz is just a blackmailer, with unindicted co-conspirators on the council. A contribution of the CAN and/or USM along with contributions to each council member would go a long way toward getting the permit ‘from the city’.

    Once I am Emperor, I will require a bond equal to the estimated costs of any delays with a 25% increase for contingencies. Only if the project is approved in a timely manner will the bond be returned.

    1. Or someone could just go break Ortiz’s kneecaps. He certainly deserves it.

  11. On business..I read that California wants to abolish prop 13 (raise property taxes) on commercial property owners in the state– that should go well.

  12. An arcade wouldn’t be family-friendly?! An arcade would be the best thing for kids, it would be a low-cost way to keep them out of trouble. Plus he’s not getting rid of any jobs, the repair store is still gonna exist, just in another building. Which means he’s not “taking away blue-collar jobs from hardworking Latinos”, (all 2 of them), he’s bringing more jobs to the area, jobs that wouldn’t need a college degree. Where the hell do these hippy fucks get off?

    1. “Business = bad, gubment provides. Eat the rich.” – DSA party platform

  13. …asked commissioners to delay the hearing as she had just heard about the project that morning, and needed more time to prepare.

    Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck that.

    1. Yeah, so the asshole who has been giving him grief has other things to do that day, and some dip wad “stakeholder” just shows up and pleads laziness and they grant her wish to postpone. Not happenstance, not at all.

  14. Opposing Mucha’s plan is Kevin Ortiz—an activist affiliated with local anti-gentrification groups Cultural Action Network (CAN) and United to Save the Mission (USM)…

    Activate some credit applications and offer to buy the property.

  15. his project will further contribute to the gentrification

    That’s the whole fucking point.

  16. It’s funny how often progressives turn out to be reactionary conservatives.

    1. Nice observation Zeb.

  17. Kids could get hurt with those hard wooden balls and whack-a-mole is a violent game. That’s reason enough to ban the arcade.

    1. No Skee-Ball? That’s the only industry New Jersey has left!

      1. It’s for the children.

        You could require helmets, knee and elbow pads for the skee-ball area. Then change whack-a-mole to pet-a-mole. Turn off the scoring system on the pinball machines and just have a display saying You Are A Winner!! after every game.

  18. This reads like a racketeering story. The “activists” clearly bought the Planning Commission (or at least enough of it).

    The only way out is to figure out which palms need greasing.

  19. San Franshitco

  20. Can we please just pour quick-set epoxy over the entire city of San Francisco, preserving it exactly as it is for all eternity?

  21. Perhaps he should turn it into a safe injection arcade.

  22. Phacoemulsification to remove the lens is the preferred surgical method for diabetic dogs. After surgery, an artificial lens is installed for optimal post-operative vision. Although cataracts typically affect both eyes, treating just one can reduce costs (estimated between $1,500 to $3,000 per eye) and still restore vision.

  23. Time for a new name: San Franwokeso.

  24. Of course this is happening in San Francisco. At some point in time anyone sane in San Francisco and California needs to leave.

  25. Hadouken!!!

  26. Democratic socialism at it’s finest.

  27. How can you expect sanity from a local government which will impose hefty fines on you if your dog poops on the sidewalk, but not if YOU do?

  28. Jim Jones was from San Francisco. Looks like his socialist Kool-Aid abounds.

  29. Activist: The guy down the street wants to upgrade his business! We gotta shut him down!
    Potential activist: Um, okay. Why?
    Activist: Gentrification!
    Potential activist: What does that mean?
    Activist: Make it less shitty.
    Potential activist: Can’t have that. I’m in.

  30. Mucha should be suing the shit out of Ortiz for tortious interference in his business.

    -jcr

  31. Gentrification now means “any money-making in the area whatseover.”

  32. I am going to assume the arcade owner is white. I wonder how things would’ve gone if the scenario was played out the exact same but he was Hispanic, Asian, etc.

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  34. Okay, what is the objection to gentrification really about?

    In the meantime, I read of an instance in Seattle, where a company wanted to tear down an abandoned restaurant and build something else in its place. An objection was filed seeking ‘Historical designation’ of the building as being an example of a certain architectural design. The company had filed for the historical designation itself, in a cynical ploy to take control of the process. Maybe that can work in San Francisco, filing for discretionary review yourself, … (In Seattle the historic designation was ultimately denied and the building was demolished.)
    And, in the meantime, it appears that nothing economic happens in San Francisco unless the politics are right, and probably bribes and payoffs are paid to the right people.

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