Activists vs. One Man's Skee-Ball Arcade: How Red Tape Is Ruining San Francisco

Joey Mucha wanted to convert his warehouse into a restaurant, bar, and arcade. Then community activists intervened.


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Joey Mucha is a three-time Skee-Ball national champion and the owner of Joey the Cat, an arcade rental, repair, and events company that he started in 2010 from his one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

After winning some prize money, Mucha was able to purchase his own fleet of Skee-Ball machines and other arcade games. In 2014, he purchased a former car repair shop and turned it a private event space and a place for fixing broken arcade games.

In April of 2019, he decided to convert his space into a restaurant, bar, and arcade. His property was already zoned for this use, but despite following all applicable codes and regulations, Mucha still had to argue his case at a public Planning Commission hearing in November. His project was jeopardized by a process known as discretionary review, in which any member of the public, in exchange for a $600 fee, can ask San Francisco's Planning Commission to hold a hearing to review building permits.

So far in 2019, the commission has publicly heard 91 requests for discretionary review. Since every building permit in the city is subject to this process, it can add significantly to the construction costs.

"Commissioners are empowered to reject most any permit, regardless of whether it satisfies the underlying zoning code," wrote Reason's Christian Britschgi in a piece about Mucha's fight.

While Mucha did end up getting permission to move forward with his renovations, the story of how the project was nearly stopped, and what Mucha endured in order to prevail, underscores how even the most benign land-use changes in San Francisco can be hampered by red tape.

Produced by John Osterhoudt. Additional camera by James Marsh and Zach Weissmueller.

Music Credit: Sadstorm by MADGOHAPPY

Fiona Ma Photo Credit: Randy Pench/ZUMA Press/Newscom