A red light glowed from behind the double doors facing Stevenson Street. Trash littered the road, and a homeless man had made his bed for the night on the sidewalk.
Shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday, April 2, two men in hoodies walked up to the building. Gold teeth gleaming, they said they had read on Craigslist that the Power Exchange, a sex club for patrons “longing for adventure,” would re-open that night.
But the neighborhood, eclectic though it may be, wanted none of it. That morning, Lisa Dunmeyer, a Brady Street resident, had found a flyer outside of her door. It asked, “Did you know that a large sex club is opening in your neighborhood?”
The flyer was sent to the Brady Street neighborhood watch. Then it was shared with the North Mission Neighborhood Alliance, the neighborhood watch for nearby McCoppin Street. Between them, they have more than 100 members.
This call to action proved to be the opening salvo in a short, but effective neighborhood standoff against an unwelcome business. Less than a week later, the community had won.
When Dunmeyer saw the flyer, her reaction was immediate: been there, done that. In November, the sex club had closed its doors at 74 Otis St., and was ready to reopen two blocks away at 44 Gough St.
No one had chased them out. The Power Exchange had been there for 13 years and had only closed because of the landlord’s legal and financial troubles, according to Michael Powers, the club owner.
But after eight years in the neighborhood, Dunmeyer had seen it all – public sex, prostitution, drugs–and she blamed it on the Power Club.
Neighbor Anna Seljuk, had put up with it even longer. Seljuk grew up in the neighborhood. Now in her thirties, she’s single and lives in an apartment on Gough Street.
When Power Exchange first opened, she said, it was fine. The customers didn’t spillover to the street. But at some point, “it got crazier and crazier and crazier.”
She saw condoms on the street when she walked her dog. At night, she saw a lot more.
When she had friends over, they couldn’t believe the action. Cars circled the block blasting music, and prostitutes walked up and down the street.
“It was so bad it was embarrassing, and it was unsafe,” she said.
When she saw the flyer, she thought it was an April Fools joke. To find out more she joined the Brady Street neighborhood watch group.
“This can’t happen again,” Seljuk recalled thinking at the time.
Shawn Scheuer has lived on Brady Street for five years. He takes pride in the diversity of his neighborhood.
“This is not a protest to what goes on inside the privacy of someone’s home, their place of worship or their sex club. It is about what goes on on our streets,” Scheuer said over e-mail. “No one should be subjected to what we have gone through.”
The neighborhood’s difficulty over the years could be boiled down to reports like this: between January and March 2008, Southern Station police officers received 15 calls to 74 Otis St., and the majority came in between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Power Exchange was open Thursday-Sunday from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Two-thirds of the calls coincide with days the club operated.
The list of complaints included shots fired, robbery, trespassing, vehicle hit and run, a mentally disturbed person, a suspicious person and a suspicious vehicle. There were two arrests during this time period: one in January for aggravated assault with a gun and, in February, a warrant arrest.
“I frankly haven’t called anything in in months,” said Dunmeyer referring to the months after the club closed.
Neither has anyone else. During the first three months of 2009, there were no calls or reported incidents.
But last week the residents again worked the phones: this time calling Christine Haw, the code enforcement team leader at the San Francisco Planning Department.
The flyer alleged that Power Exchange would open without proper permits and provided contact information for the building owner, the city planning department and the local supervisor.
Before long, Haw had gotten a “flood of calls” about the Power Exchange. (As of Tuesday, she was still returning messages.)
“I couldn’t find anything at all in terms of any permits,” she said.
The Planning Department at 1650 Mission is right across the street from the Power Exchange’s former location and just a few blocks from the new address. The club, Haw said, was “one of the more colorful neighbors.”
She visited the proposed site with a building inspector and met with property owner Tom Havorka and the club owner.
Powers, it turned out, had signed a five-year lease beginning April 1, and in it he had assumed all responsibility for obtaining permits. His attorney had told him he only needed a business license, Haw said.
Haw informed him otherwise. To adapt the former office space, an application for change of use must be filed. The process involves the Planning Department, the Fire Department and the Department of Building Inspection.
In addition, “It would certainly require some sort of public notification.”
April 2 was supposed to be Power Exchange’s opening night, but Powers pledged not to open until the paperwork was in order.
That night, a few potential customers passed by the club, but the doors were locked.
Storeowner Claudia Schwartz was working late. Her shop, Bell’occhio, sells jewelry and house wares and was recently profiled in the New York Times.
While the Power Exchange’s new location was 44 Gough St., the entrance would be on Stevenson, right across from her store.
With meticulous displays and distinctive merchandise, she said her shop was the “antithesis” of the Power Exchange.
“It really makes me angry that the owner of the Power Exchange didn’t talk to anybody,” Schwartz said.
On Friday afternoon, Tom Hovorka, the building agent, said things were at a standstill.
“I want to settle it amicably,” he said.
He said he hadn’t expected the neighborhood outcry. He too had received a number of phone calls. While some were cordial, he said many were rude, aggressive – even personal.
Powers, who was in Las Vegas on Friday night where he operates another Power Exchange, said that no one had called him, but he knew about the calls his landlord had received.
“These people are in protest because they don’t want me in their neighborhood. If I was so bad why did [the business last] 13 years?”
Part of the problem in obtaining permits, he said, was that the city didn’t know how to categorize a sex club.
“I don’t have strippers or stuff that’s provided,” he said, adding, “I’m removed completely from the entertainment.”
At the Planning Department, Haw confirmed it was a gray area. She had asked him for a detailed description of how the business operates.
Because of the significant neighborhood opposition and the permit issue, she said on Tuesday that, “It’s going be a while.”
On Sunday, a group of protestors with colorful signs held a protest at an open house for two other properties Hovorka represented. One sign read, “Tom Hovorka rents to SEX CLUB with long history of neglect in my neighborhood.” The neighbors posted an account of this action to their local listserv.
Less than a week after the controversy began, the opening of Power Exchange was delayed indefinitely. Mark Watson, Havorka’s attorney, said that the lease had been terminated. Powers, he said, had been notified.
Powers did not return a phone call for comment.
On hearing the news, Seljuk said she felt empowered. By working with her community, “we did it all together.”
She’s still uneasy though. “Did we win? Could he open up somewhere else?”
Dunmeyer shared her sentiments.
“I think [Powers] will continue his work,” she said.