Updated: Nov 26, 2019
Planning Commissioners approved a party amusement space on 19th Street which for years continued to host expensive and unpermitted tech and corporate party events, even after enforcement actions were taken by the City.
After years of hosting illegal, high-end corporate and tech parties in a space that was only approved to hold blue-collar and arts space, Joey the Cat owner Joey Mucha cleared a hurdle towards full legalization with a recent Planning Commission vote 4-1 in favor of his project.
“No one is against him having an family-friendly arcade space,” said Kevin Ortiz, who filed for the Discretionary Review hearing on behalf of Cultural Action Network and the United to Save the Mission coalition. “We’re against him using loopholes in the code to keep running yet one more party space that caters to upscale newcomers,” he added.
At the Commission hearing Ortiz and other community advocates pointed to Mucha’s ongoing illegal use of the space for exclusive parties as one of several reasons they wanted the commissioners to approve the space -- without the alcohol use.
“Joey has illegally been using his space for private parties where alcohol was served for over five years,” Ortiz told the commissioners. “He was given a notice of enforcement from the Planning Department in 2018 and since then has continued to host private corporate parties. He does not have a license to serve alcohol, but the parties continue to feature drinking. He is, therefore, a bad-faith actor who has operated in violation of the law,” Ortiz said.
During the hearing, Mucha’s professional expediter and supporters tried to paint the picture of Mucha as a small business guy struggling to keep his business alive through unfair delays from the City hearing process. This story was, however, debunked when it became known that Mucha’s parents had in fact bought the entire building to house his business for one and a half million dollars.
Mucha repeatedly has stated, both inside and outside of the hearing, that he was uninterested and unable to run the space without an alcohol license, saying it was not viable as a business model. Ortiz challenged that assumption as unhealthy to the Mission community, particularly given its history with alcohol.
“The Mission already has 389 alcohol permits, and allowing every business that tries to claim poverty to become yet another bar under a fake restaurant license just adds to the alcohol and destination tourism problem Latinx leaders have been fighting for decades,” Ortiz told MissionWord.
In the past several years, the unpermitted Joey the Cat space was said to rent out for as much as $2,500 a night for corporate parties, according to information on its website.
Ortiz said that the coalition’s Community Development Committee would meet soon to discuss whether to continue opposing the alcohol version of the project throughout the remainder of its permitting process.
“We’re concerned that there is no community benefits agreement in place here to guarantee that local working-class families would have full access to the space if they wanted most of the time, nor that it won’t continue to be principally used as an exclusive party space affordable only to wealthy newcomers and corporations to rent,” he added.
During testimony, several Mission representatives alluded to how unenforceable the laws were that allowed Mucha to make this controversial conversion of blue-collar space -- a type of use prioritized by the City’s Mission Area Plan -- into a destination party space.
Mucha had requested that the space be turned into a “bona fide” restaurant under the Planning code, along with converting to Amusement Arcade use.
After a long fight led by Latinx leadership in a neighborhood mired in alcohol issues, in 1998 the entire Mission District was declared an “Alcohol Special Use District,” putting a limit on the number of hard alcohol licences allowed, as this type of license was growing rapidly in the neighborhood at the time, and the effects on public health had become clear. But fast-forward to 2019 and commercial operators like Mucha have found their way around the code in order to open a party space -- call it a restaurant.
By going through the much easier loophole of creating bar spaces as “bona fide restaurants” under the City code, operators can get a much cheaper beer and wine license. Additionally, it is widely understood that the bona fide restaurant provision requiring more than fifty percent of sales be from food can be very easily circumvented, a point made at the hearing by Bruce Livingston, Executive Directory of Alcohol Justice.
“We know very well on a state-wide basis that bona fide restaurants are an excuse to turn things into bars,” Livingston told the Commission.
Another community member with concerns about the new space conversion is Mary Alice Fry, who used to run one of the few remaining inexpensive performance spaces in the Mission, Shotwell Studios, on the second floor of the building Mucha’s family recently purchased. Fry's popular arts studio was evicted by the prior owners.
“It’s over for low rent art spaces [in the Mission],” Fry told MissionWord. “I’ve moved on to the East Bay.”
In 2014 Mucha’s family bought what was at the time an auto repair shop, and for a short time appeared to use the space for its intended use, Production, Distribution, and Repair (PDR), which allows for a variety of blue-collar and arts spaces, as he repaired skeeball machines in the space.
But Mucha quickly went on to illegally use the space regularly for corporate parties, with Yelp reviews mentioning these events going back as far as 2016, and countless posts to Joey the Cat’s own Facebook page boasting about what a great place it was to host your corporate party.
A Yelp user review from 2018 says, “Highly recommended for any sort of fun party you might be looking to host!”
In July 2018 a “Notice of Enforcement” letter specified that the space could not be used to serve alcohol, and warned that the penalty for any further illegal use would be $250 per day.
But instead of heeding the City’s demand that he stop his illegal corporate parties, Mucha’s response appeared to be to simply take down his exterior sign in an attempt to conceal his establishment’s activities. The City has so far failed to collect any penalties from Mucha.
A Yelp review from December 2018 -- long after the City had taken alcohol enforcement action against the space -- reads, “Went there for a holiday party. No sign you have to know it’s there...they had a beer and wine setup.”
Yelp reviews show that hosting of private, corporate events continued through 2019, with a January review reading, “This was the best corporate party ever,” and a May 2019 post reading “We hosted our holiday party here the last 2 years.”
By converting the blue-collar space in “Urban Mixed Use” (UMU) zoning, Mucha was taking advantage of an infamous part of the City's planning code that has long been the subject of anger among Mission advocates. When the Mission Area Plan, which governs the land use in the neighborhood, was created between City officials and community representatives in 2007, it initially contained a requirement that this UMU zoning would require that some amount of blue-collar use only space be retained when undergoing conversions.
But when the final Mission Area Plan was officially published in 2008 it no longer contained this requirement -- it had been removed by City officials behind the backs of their community partners.
“I killed PDR in the UMU, thank you very much,” boasted Planner Steve Wertheim who worked for the City at the time, in an email first uncovered by Potrero advocates when they filed a PDR-based Sunshine request. Their discovery was later fully covered in an article by Zelda Bronstein at 48 Hills.
The damage from this unethical City behavior was partially repaired through the passage of Prop X, which requires larger UMU spaces retain some PDR use, but this still leaves smaller UMU spaces such as the one housing Joey the Cat free to exploit this ongoing hole in the code.
“Both alcohol licenses at so-called restaurants and blue-collar space retention laws have been abused through loopholes for far too long," said Ortiz. "It's causing harm to the health and stability of our neighborhood. So we're working to fix them right now.”