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.