After months of delays and intense opposition from neighborhood organizations, a San Francisco business owner will be allowed to move ahead with his zone-compliant plan to convert an arcade game repair space that he owns into a normal arcade.
In a 4-to-1 vote late last night, the city's planning commission rejected a request from anti-gentrification activists to deny Joey Mucha, owner of the arcade rental business Joey the Cat, a change of use permit to convert his repair shop into a public arcade and restaurant space.
"The last four months have been incredibly stressful waiting for this to happen," Mucha says. "I just wanted to get my place open to the public, and all the red tape was just a really unnecessary hurdle."
Since 2014, Mucha has been operating his arcade rental and repair business out of a two-story commercial building in the city's Mission District. Having his own space allowed Mucha to start hosting private events, whether that was kids' birthday parties or off-site corporate retreats.
Mucha's neighbors and Mission-area businesses both generally appreciated the addition of another space to hold events in the neighborhood. But in 2018, the San Francisco Planning Department issued a notice of enforcement against Mucha's business.
While his property was zoned for "urban mixed-use"—a category that allows nighttime entertainment and arcades—Mucha still needed to get a change of use permit to let his repair shop be used for private events.
So in April 2019, Mucha requested a permit that would allow him to convert his repair shop into a full-time arcade that would be open to the public and could serve food and alcohol.
This should have been a relatively easy sell, given that Mucha didn't require any special variances or approvals. But in July, Kevin Ortiz of the anti-gentrification group Cultural Action Network filed a request for discretionary review of Mucha's permit application.
Discretionary review is a process through which any member of the public can ask the planning commission—a seven-member appointed body that oversees the Planning Department—to review an application for a permit.
Commissioners are empowered to reject most any permit, regardless of whether it satisfies the underlying zoning code. Even when permits aren't rejected, the discretionary review process can still add months to a project's approval.
In discretionary review filings and in comments at yesterday's public hearing, Ortiz and other activists argued that Mucha's plan for a public arcade would get rid of valuable repair space in the Mission District, replacing it with yet another alcohol-serving establishment that would cater to rich techies, not neighborhood families.
"This is within 500 feet of an elementary school and 700 feet of a high school. We don't need our young people walking by that and seeing those negative toxic images," Ortiz said at the hearing.
He and other project opponents asked the commission to reject Mucha's permit application, or at the very least limit his hours of operation and the number of events he could hold each month.
Countering this narrative was a parade of neighborhood businesses and residents, many of whom had used Mucha's event space, who told the commission that a public arcade would, in fact, add to the area's family-friendly nature.
"There have been four generations of native San Franciscans, which include my family and friends, that have enjoyed these games at my children's birthday parties at Joey the Cat," said one of the owners of the janitorial business next door to Mucha.
Between this neighborhood support and the fact that his property was already zoned for arcade use, Mucha won. But it's notable just how much effort, and how much corralling of community support, it took to secure what should have been a straightforward application.
"I had to become a politician to make this thing a reality. I don't like politics, I don't like everything that I had to engage in just to open my business," says Mucha, who praised the planning commission for ruling the way it did.
"Yes, we got approval," Mucha says. And now, "I need to go back to being a small business owner and build a business again."