Elbo Room’s Possible Fate? A Retirement Pad for Bar’s Past Owners

Plans for the current site of the Elbo Room as presented by Kerman Morris architects at community meeting November 6. Photo by Daniel Hirsch.

When news broke that the Elbo Room might be demolished to make way for new condos, fans of the longtime neighbor bar and club responded fiercely. The ire didn’t stop when the people behind the plans spoke to a community for the first time in person at a meeting at Mission Station Thursday. The plan’s backers: the Elbo’s Room’s former owners, the very people who helped found the bar in the first place.

Dennis Ring and Susan Rokisky-Ring who own the building at 647 Valencia Street — but sold the Elbo Room business to their employees Matt Shapiro and Erik Cantu in 2010 — have plans to convert the two story club into a five-story, nine unit condominium. Part of the couple’s motivation, they explained Thursday, is to have a place where they can retire.

“This is part of our vision for ourselves, for my husband and I to spend the rest of our days,” said Rokisky-Ring, who explained at the meeting that she’s been in the Mission since 1969, and lived within four blocks of the Elbo Room for 20 years. She says that their current house, a two family home on Cumberland Street, has too many stairs. They will need a building with an elevator as they progress in years.

The plans, which are still in the very preliminary phases, include a mix of two and one room units, with 870 square-feet of commercial space on the ground floor. At the meeting, the Rings said they have promised the bar’s current owners to help them relocate should the plans become a reality, but that failed to win over everyone in the crowd of roughly 30 gathered Thursday.

At one point in the meeting, after Rokisky-Ring shared their vision of a place where they and older residents like them could retire comfortably, someone in the room blurted out: “Move to Sacramento!”

To which Rokisky-Ring, clearly upset, responded: “This is my city…You want to kick me out of this city I’ve been in since I was a teenager?”

Elbo Room of Tomorrow

Formerly Amelia’s under the ownership of Rikki Streicher, for whom Dennis Ring once worked, the longtime lesbian bar became the Elbo Room in the early 1990s and the Rings then took over the business. When they sold the Elbo Room business to Shapiro and Cantu, they remained as landlords and stayed on good terms. At Thursday’s meeting, Ring said the bar is “part of our legacy” and the Rings will do whatever they can to keep the bar going somewhere in the Mission.

“We’ve talked with my connections in the Mission District so Elbo Room can continue on,” said Ring. “It will be somewhere in the Mission, not outside of it. We will do our diligence. We want it to continue.”

“I appreciate the sound of that,” said a community member who identified himself as a local musician.

“Why don’t you develop another piece of land?” asked Sean Seigel, who’s been DJing the Elbo Room’s Soul Party for many years.

“We don’t have the money for it,” responded Rokisky-Ring. “This project isn’t displacing anyone.”

To this the room erupted in numerous upset cries. According to public records, the Rings own a handful of other properties in the Mission. Rokisky-Ring has been a realtor in San Francisco for many years. One neighborhood questioned Rokisky-Ring’s intentions and her vision of a senior-friendly apartment building.

In an environment of condos selling for large sums and an influx of young Silicon Valley money, “to say that it’s going to be a lot of senior citizens is disingenuous,” said one community member.

Many in the room seemed dubious about the promises to help find a new home for the Elbo Room and spoke of the significance of its location.

“This is a cultural institution,” said Catherine Lee, who says she has been coming to the Elbo Room for close to 20 years. “That corner with the Elbo Room is a nexus where music, poetry, and writers have had a sustained vitality.”

Dennis Ring said again that the Elbo Room isn’t going anywhere now. Its lease lasts until the end of 2015 and the project’s plans could take even longer than that to be finalized — if approved by the Planning Department.

Queers and Cornices

While the most heated conversation centered around the fate of the Elbo Room, much of the evening was a more level-headed discussion of the designs presented by the project’s architect Toby Morris, of the firm Kerman Morris.

Morris described the five-story, nine-unit building as “a transitional one that honors traditional styles and becomes more modern and contemporary going back down Sycamore Alley.”

But the architect’s descriptions and plans didn’t convince everyone in the crowd of the potential building’s charms.

“I have concerns that this looks like every other development that’s going up,” said Jefferson McCarley, speaking on behalf of the Valencia Cooridor Merchants Association. Kerman Morris also designed the new V20 building under construction at 20th and Valencia Streets. McCarley also made note of the building’s unique signage and its old gold-rimmed entryway facing Valencia Street.

“You need to give the plans a closer look,” said Ring, who said they had put a lot of thought into the building to give something fresh and interesting to Mission Street.

Some in the room snickered.

Others had concerns about the plans not having enough open space; the project will have a roof deck and private balcony on the second floor. Several people asked about affordable housing, with just nine units the building doesn’t cross the ten-unit requirement for inclusionary housing. Morris also said that there’s no definite plans for the ground floor space, but it won’t have features necessary to build a restaurant.

There was also the issue of history. The bar, which reportedly has been under operation since the end of Prohibition, has a lot of it. Whether there’s enough history to affect the plans to demolish it is an open question. Morris explained to the room that the city is currently undergoing a historic assessment as part of its environmental review.

Operating as Amelia’s, and before that the Gaslight, 647 Valencia Street was a hub of queer culture and history. In a time when gay bars are vanishing and the city has invested in producing an LGBTQ Historical Context Statement, the Elbo Room’s future could be determined by its past.

“That this was Amelia’s is a big issue for Planning,” said Donna Shibata, a concerned neighbor who says she’s talked to Tania Shewner, the planner  involved in the project. Shewner could not be reached for comment.

“They view it as a tough issue…public input on its significance could persuade them,” said Shibata.

As part of the application to the Planning Department, Morris said they included an assessment from a hired historical consultant. If the Elbo Room is deemed historical it would be for “cultural factors” and not necessarily for the building’s design said Morris. Being a historical resource could mean many different things for the plans — from modifications to delays to outright rejection by the Planning Department.

“Rikki was this lesbian icon, my old boss. If something needs to be thought about to respect her legacy, we’ll do what we can do,” said Ring of the owner of Amelia’s, a longtime gay rights activist and founder of the Gay Games who died in 1994. After the official meeting ended and people began to trickle out, Ring said he thought it would be nice to name the building after Streicher.

Despite the Rings’ attempts to win over the crowd, the resistance to their plans is likely to persist. As the meeting ended, Catherine Lee said she had a signup sheet for those interested in organizing against the project — she had the names and emails of over a dozen people within minutes. One particularly aggrieved neighbor came up to Rokisky-Ring after the meeting and said simply: “You’re evil.”

For his part, the Elbo Room’s current owner Matt Shapiro was fairly sanguine about his bar’s future.

“When the time comes, we’ll find a new spot,” said Shapiro and added that he understands people’s distrust and anger. “It’s home to a ton of people…It has a lot of history, a lot of ghosts.”

Update November 10, 2014: Detailed plans for the project at the Elbo Room building can be seen here.

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57 Comments

  1. Bob

    This looks fine to me. I like the tall windows. Hostile NIMBYs will never be satisfied.

    • Alex

      Yeah, it’s weird how some people will protest anything, even a small innocuous residential building for seniors like this.

      • Charlie Shavers

        You have no idea how many lives this will affect for the worse. The Elbo Room is the only place of it’s kind in all of San Francisco. It is cultural institutions like this that inspires people to want to move to San Francisco in the first place. When you close them all down to make housing, the deep rooted artistic heritage that makes the Mission District what it is becomes depleted of it’s significance. Let’s not kid ourselves, these units will not be for seniors but for the wealthy, when asked how much units were all he ended up saying was “expensive”.

        • Joel

          There are plenty of wealthy seniors.

          • I seriously doubt that wealthy seniors would choose to live in the Mission, on Valencia Street.

          • Alex

            Donkey, what do you mean by wealthy? There are many Mission homes that are worth over a million.

            What do you mean by senior? I see lots of 50-something and 60-something people around the neighborhood who don’t look short of a buck or two.

        • Runforthehills

          Oh, the hyperbole…

        • Alex

          The Mission is full of dive bars. What’s the big deal?

          • Tomas

            Obviously, you either don’t live in the Mission or you’re one of those recent aggregate newcomers in the neighborhood. That place is community.

          • Alex

            Tomas, I live in the Mission and know many of those dive bars, like 500 Club, Uptown bar, Dalva, KiloWatt etc.

            So I guess it’s you who isn’t familiar with this area.

          • Charlie

            Those are bars, Elbo Room is a 200+ capacity venue. They sell presale tickets to events and have performances almost every night from acts and artists coming from all around the world. Slightly different to The Uptown.

    • corey

      It’s funny how many people misuse NIMBY.

    • backtotheburbs

      Let’s take over previously cheap and low income neighborhoods, ideally with a high proportion of non-citizens who have no rights (except to ‘illegally’ work for sub-minimum wage) and who can’t forge any opposition except perhaps by taking to the streets.

      Let’s take over these hoods and develop the f* out of them. Let’s make sure the development is done completely in disregard of people who already live there (but living there perhaps for not too much more, right?). Let’s make sure that these developments bring in on the order of 30% profit, plus hefty yearly appreciation to lock in these changes for future pre-selected generations.

      If the existing residents can’t afford this new reality engineered behind their backs then they can just move and start over.

      Too many dive bars? More like too many luxury condos …

      • Montefusco

        Behold, the self righteous self appointed guardian of the Mission. With his wisdom he can ignore laws ( they’re not illegal bc I say so!, private property? So what!) and decide the future of a neighborhood. He is a transplant to the Mission, of course. “But I know what’s best!” Blah, blah, blah.

  2. OZ

    I DJ’d at this club every week for many years and it saddens me that it may be closing, but if anyone deserves to do what ever they wish with the property they own it is the Ring’s. They always treated everyone who played there fair, they kept the legacy alive after they sold it and they built it up to what it has become. It will leave a gaping hole in the Mission, but c’mon son this is property they own. It is not a city financed museum or cultural center (though that would be kind of cool thing to try and make happen).

    • Russo

      Remember when they closed the I-Beam then the Nightbreak in the Upper Haight? Though Milk plays music, when is the last time you went to that ‘hood to hear music? Never, right? Mission beware.

    • homegrown

      they need to remember who helped and supported them all these years and that’s the community’. I have heard the line before, its for my retirement. Another building
      on valencia said the building was for the workers of his garage. Once it was built he closed the garage.

  3. Faceword

    How can people object to this? We have a housing crisis that won’t abate until there is additional supply.

    • Charlie Shavers

      because it’s housing for the wealthy in a working class neighborhood and closing down arguably the best and most diverse music venue in San Francisco

    • Russo

      So it’s affordable housing at the expense of our culture? It’s up to cultural institutions to make way for housing? Jeez, since the most detailed analyses estimate that 100,000 new units must be built for rents to come down, we’re in for a lot of culturecide!

      • gribble

        “Your” culture? If it was yours you would own it and provide it for others. But it isn’t your culture, it was borrowed by you and shared by the owners. They no longer wish to provide it for whatever reason. Find somewhere new. Things change.

        • Bob

          Very well said.

        • Bert

          Yeah, it’s funny how some people demand that others do what they want, or don’t do what they don;t want to do. And yet they are not willing to create anything themselves.

          Russo should buy a building himself and then he can use it any way he wants. But he wants that power and control on the cheap, not by taking a risk and making a commitment, but by trying to guilt and shame others into doing what he wants.

        • Russo

          Did I say “my” culture? No. Try again, nitwit.

  4. old mission

    As a senior having trouble with my 42 steps, it would be great to have the option to move to a building with an elevator that is senior friendly.

  5. Runforthehills

    I love how people in this town think that other people’s property is somehow public domain.

    • homegrown

      just because you own property does not mean you could do what you want with it. why do you think they have community meetings and notices are sent out and then needs approval from the planning commission. What
      if I decided to make my property a dump site and you are my neighbor.

      • Bert

        Depends if you are an immediate neighbor or not. SF Planning notifies the owners of the buildings closest to the subject building about any proposed changes, and invites them to give input. If that is you and object, that doesn’t mean it won’t get built, but if enough neighbors agree, you can perhaps influence the design, if not the use.

        But if you don’t live very close to the subject building, then you are not consulted. Unless the proposal is a nuclear power station or sewage processing plant, you don’t have any say.

        The immediate neighbors probably would be happy not to have a bar next to them, I’d guess.

      • Mission Neighborhood

        They are not making a dump site. They are planning housing for themselves and others. They have also offered to help the Elbo Room find a new location.

      • kenny dojo

        Do you like the Elbo Room? The same people who made it what it is are the ones who want to change it. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt, when it comes to finding another location?

    • Montefusco

      Exactly.

  6. kabana

    There is NOT a housing shortage- 10,000 new units have been built this year, or are in process. The issue is that the Outlanders who move here in the last decade are bringing with them their provincial notions of what they think a City should be. What this means is that they speak in numbers, with money, and all that MADE S.F. what it was is being systematically evicted, shut down, or priced out.
    The club is one of the few left of its kind, and “affordable housing” is based on HUD guidelines. This means that the median income to qualify is $60,000 yearly, give or take.Many people here, believe it or not, do not make that, and won’t qualify for”affordable housing”.

    There are literally thousands of empty apartments for the Outlanders who make appx. $80 to 120,000 yearly. The owners seem to mean well, but with property owners doubling rents these days, I doubt they will find an equitable space. I see wanting to finance their golden years, but it’s a terrible idea

    • MoreSFHouseingPlease

      First of all, that 10,000 number is false. Second of all, in the years prior, there were almost no new units built, so that number has to address for past demand. Third, 10,000 units is nearly nothing with demand where it is at right now. And finally, with ~170,000 rent controlled units, all new units are more expensive due to subsidizing their below-market rents.

      “Outlanders”; give me a break. Lock the doors everyone, I got mine!

  7. Missiondancer

    I’ve gone to the Elbo Room for over 20 years, and love it for a multitude of reasons. I can walk there, I can safely take a cab home from there, they host live music, the crowd is down to earth and eclectic. I’m an older patron, and still feel comfortable there. I’m not sure where I would go if not to the Elbo Room. Seems that more people are served by keeping it going, right?

  8. That’s because paid we paid the mortgage.

  9. Mission resident

    It’s a building with walls? If they rent another venue and have the same bands/musicians play, how would the culture be lost? Do they somehow play better music in this particular building? Do their instruments not work if they are playing a block down the street? How dumb do you think people are to say that culture will be lost if the bar changes location. People make culture, not the buildings.

    • PurplePerson

      The point of all this is the insane property prices. The Elbo Room won’t be able to afford a place “a block down the street.” People might make culture, but buildings keep the people. Maybe more bongo rallies on the street corners?

  10. Ryan MacPhee

    This is absurd. These people should be able to change the bar they’ve owned for decades in to a retirement home and investment. I spent many a night at the elbow room and had a ton of fun. But my right to get wasted and dance doesn’t really compare to the decades of investment this couple has put in to the space. A lot the people who are anti this seem to be exactly what they describe as being so awful in the tech folks: self absorbed, entitled and greedy. Get over yourselves and let these people do what they want with what is a huge part of their savings.

  11. Phengren Oswald

    The housing crisis is, at least partially, a manufactured crisis. There upwards of 30,000 vacant, livable, dwellings in San Francisco

    http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2011/03/san-francisco-bay-area-vacant-homes.html?page=all

    A large of portion of newly built condos are owned as secondary dwellings.

    http://sfist.com/2014/09/30/almost_half_of_newly_built_condos_i.php

    The proposed 9 story unit building is one unit shy of having to offer the allotted percentage of affordable (below market rate housing).

    And seriously, if you’re ready to retire and spend the autumn of your life in San Francisco, would want to do it on fucking Valencia St?

    Just be honest and admit that you want to retire in style (in addition to owning a yacht and several other properties in SF and abroad.).

    Ultimately, the building’s owners have every right to do whatever they want with the building. BUT, while it benefits the few, it bums out the many. Anytime a decent venue closes anywhere it’s a drag.

    Maybe some folks might relate better if it were, say, Flour and Water or Commonwealth, and the building’s owner decided to boot the occupant, tear down
    the building and replace it with a giant bouncy castle that only 10 people are allowed to use.

  12. JimmyL

    I’ve been to these meeting too – in disguise of course. Usually wearing second-hand clothing.

    The first thing to note is that the attendees are mostly what I refer to as “professional whiners”. People who literally LIVE for neighborhood conflict. Much like your elected officials (and Uptown + MM + ML), they live on controversy and division as it assures attendance/votes or clicks/ads.

    As such, you get a bunch of full time morons and their posse’s there to a) create a click-baiting/narrative-fitting argument for b) narrative-loving / making-a-living-off-of “journalists” their to cover it. Uptown Almanac has jumped the shark and its sad – grow up.

    You morons no longer represent the Mission. You represent a bunch of self-entitled punk asses who (much like Fox News) thrives on FUD and FUD only. You’re the problem, not the people trying to legitimately live here and CO-HABITATE… as opposed to just “chillin here cuz the bar scene is cool and my fixie fixin dude is nearby”. The “indigenous” folks who are and more importantly *have* raised great families that make the good Mission what it is. Also, cyring when a BAR closes as opposed to caring about PEOPLE GETTING FUCKING MURDERED NEXT TO PLAYGROUNDS AND SCHOOLS is fucking shallow.

    Care about the real/full-integrated issues. In short: dear liberal arts degree/transient/bar-hopping/self-entitled fuckers: go away – we’ve got this. We actually want to live here. Like, really. And with everyone else.

  13. BellaDancer

    Best of luck to Dennis Ring and Susan Rokisky-Ring. Let’s hope their good deed in creating a wonderful place and years of wonderful experiences for the neighborhood can in fact go unpunished. But don’t count on it.

  14. Barbara Saunders

    This

  15. Barbara Saunders

    This is ridiculous. It is not immoral to tear down a building that you own and put it to profitable use.

  16. guest

    The Rings are divorced and have not lived together for years, so her claim they want to live there together is bogus. This is about earning tons of cash, not sure why they don’t just admit it.

    • BellaDancer

      Why do you think their marriage is any of your business? Listen to yourself! None of it is your business. They provided a wonderful thing to the neighborhood and now they are moving on. That’s life. People age and change. Life is not static. The fact that you loved something another person did does not give you the right to a voice in what that person does next.
      You do not get to decide whether they make money. You do not get to judge their marriage or their motivations. This is not about you or anyone other than these two people who have been good neighbors for so long.
      Everyone, get over yourselves. Cultivez votre jardin and butt out of other peoples’ lives.

  17. missiondancer

    Asking for community feedback I would think implies that how the patrons that frequented an establishment feel counts. So I’m not understanding the need to attack those of us who don’t want to lose a live music venue in our neighborhood. It’s not the bar part I’d be missing, since I don’t drink, it’s the music and dancing.

    • BellaDancer

      Caring how people feel and giving them an opportunity to express their feelings is an act of compassion and generosity. It’s a wonderful thing to do as a community. But an opportunity to express your feelings, even feelings of sadness and loss over music, dancing and even drinking, should not be mistaken for the right to decide what other people do with their lives and property.

  18. kenny dojo

    Where are people getting this “senior living” thing from? All they said is that they themselves want to live there later on, and that it would be easier as it will have elevators

  19. PurplePerson

    Of course they CAN do whatever they want, but as long time residents, you think they might have more respect for what they SHOULD do, which is to leave in place the places that make that area what it is. Gentrification is so predictable: pretty soon the Mission, which people flocked to because of the ARTS, will be nothing but for-profit restaurants and condos. The artists will have all moved to the East Bay, which they are already, and the same process, which is already in effect, will continue to repeat itself.

  20. Lish

    Marlena’s, Cafe du Nord, The Red Devil Lounge, The Lexington, and now the Elbo Room. All gone within a few years. Classic San Francisco bars and venues, with long enduring but quickly extinguished cultural legacies. Go ahead, San Francisco, eat the heart out of your city and cash out with a profit on the empty shell.

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