1-Jun-2012 (Fri)
Wherein the Permit Apocalypse is revealed.

Two weeks ago, our architect came to us and basically said, "Hey, remember a year and a half ago when I told you this project was going to cost $X? Well, some things have come up and that might actually be $2X or $3X. Oops."

This would be bad -- like, "If that's truly the case, I'm firing 21 people and selling the restaurant tomorrow" bad.

The first problem is, it turns out that the spot where the door between DNA Lounge and DNA Pizza was going to go has a support beam running down the middle of it, holding up the second floor. That's something that would have been nice to know, like, a year and a half ago. So, if we move the door to the East, it opens into DNA Lounge's men's room. If we move it to the West, it's behind DNA Pizza's bar. Or, we could cut that beam and split it in two, supporting it on top of a big steel lintel inside the wall. For that to work, we'd need to pour a new concrete footing for it... which would be 13' long and 3' wide, which means, again, demolishing the DNA Pizza bar. Oh, also, maybe that's where the drain pipes are -- we don't know -- which could mean jackhammering up the entire floor to move those.

Without that door there, we cannot combine the two businesses. Without combining the two businesses, we can never get an entertainment permit for the second floor, because SOMA does not allow entertainment. (SOMA does not allow entertainment. Roll that around in your head for a while. We're an "existing, nonconforming" use, which means that while we can expand, a new entertainment business can never open in SOMA.)

So we really need that door. And it has to be a certain size based on capacity.

It's possible that we can work around this problem by using two doors instead of one, with the support beam standing between them. We have yet to get a straight answer on whether they'll accept that.

That's not even the worst problem, though.

The worst problem is, the Fire Department has decided that they would really prefer it if we replace the entire two-story North wall between DNA Pizza and the muffler shop. Because even though that wall has been there for literally one hundred years, now it's suddenly not good enough.

How this happened is, there was a meeting where our architect said, "Well as you see, we're a Type-XYZ building", and the Fire Department inspector said, "Hmm, let me think, my reading of this one weird little sentence in the code makes me ponder the possibility that you might actually be a Type-You're-FUCKED building instead."

    "No, I'm pretty sure we're Type-XYZ."

    "Let me call over half a dozen of the other boys in the office. Yes, our consensus is that we all kind of prefer the interpretation that you're of Type-You're-FUCKED. So, you just go ahead and replace that wall with one that's a 2-hour-burn instead of a 1-hour-burn and then everything's hunky dory. Mmmmkay? Buh bye."

Replacing that wall would mean all kinds of horrible things including demolishing the restaurant's kitchen, since half of the equipment is on that wall, so add to the total the cost of the restaurant being closed for months. Oh, and even if we did do all this extra work, it would push the cost of the project above the limit where we can get an exemption for not having a handicapped-accessible second floor -- which means, you guessed it, we'd have to install an elevator! Who knows where, there's no room. And then $3X has become $4X.

So now our only hope is to write to the State Fire Marshall asking for his interpretation of this bit of the code and hoping that he interprets it differently.

Because if we can't get our permits without replacing that wall, we're done. We can never open the second floor, there will never be live entertainment up there, and I bought a restaurant for nothing. I'm out not only the money I've spent propping up this money-losing restaurant in order to get us into the building in the first place, but also all of the construction work we've done so far, and I've completely wasted two years of my life.

So that's why I keep using the term "Permit Apocalypse". This is some end-of-the-world bullshit.

As I think I've mentioned before: San Francisco would prefer that you not run a business here.

How many times does this city have to say this to me before I finally take the fucking hint and get out?

It's like that scene in The Man With Two Brains where Steve Martin is praying, and says, "If there's anything wrong with this, just give me a sign." Then lightning flashes, the painting spins, a voice moans NOOOOOO... And he pauses, and says, "Just any kind of sign."

32 Responses:

  1. Ry Jones says:

    I bet it would have been cheaper to buy off some schmoe in City Hall. That's probably what they've been looking for all along - they're sitting there wondering "when is this guy gonna grease our palms?" while you wonder "how much would it cost to move to Seattle?"

    • Jamie Zawinski says:

      Yes, that is the theory of every back-seat driver on the Internet. In my twelve years of doing this, having hired numerous "expediters" and lobbyists in my various permitting adventures, I have never, ever found someone with their hand out in the way you assume. As far as I can tell, unless you're playing at the scale of Oracle or Twitter, graft doesn't work that way in this town.

      If you know differently, do please let me know.

      • Arlo Kirschner says:

        This used to be a thing. Then someone cleaned up the utilitarian portion of the corruption, without cleaning up the beaurocratic evil that once served to push people in the direction of honest bribery. It was a good process to begin, but I think they may have left off at the wrong point. . .

  2. moof says:

    How astoundingly shitty. It makes me wonder if all sorts of crap is opening in Oakland due to less awful permiting (if that's indeed the case.)

    • Jamie Zawinski says:

      Well, that's why the Fox Theatre exists. Meanwhile, NIMBYs are still preventing the Nob Hill Masonic Center from doing concerts: http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2012/05/group-suing-over-events-nob-hill-masonic-center

    • Kest Viator says:

      Oakland has its own issues. Take, for example, the ridiculously terrible demise of 21 Grand: http://oaklandnorth.net/2010/10/18/cost-of-culture-in-oakland-120000/

      I understand fire and health and safety codes being a theoretical benefit to society. But, you know, reality is also a thing. And it really steams me up when government officials play like their hands are tied when they are the ones going out of their way to interpret the law a certain way.

    • spiralpolitik says:

      Oakland is its own brand of crazy. The city is practically bankrupt yet any attempts to bring in new revenue from new retail is continually shot down by the usual NIMBY reasons. Emeryville is laughing its way to the bank with all the projects that have relocated there over the last few years.

      Other East Bay cities don't fair much better. Any attempts to drag Berkeley into the 21st century with changes to the zoning law are run over by the usual suspects. In the recent discussion over the West Berkeley plan, the NIMBYs would rather keep empty warehouses, toxic industry and an aquatic park that's cruising zone on one end and open sewer at the other end rather than rezone to attract housing, new start ups and small businesses.

      End result, big projects like the extension to the Lawrence Berkeley lab move up the road to Richmond or down the road to Emeryville.

  3. DoctorMemory says:

    On a tangent: I know that in theory the Mission is a designated no-liquor-licenses zone. (All existing bars in the Mission are using grandfathered or re-sold liquor permits.) I did not know but am not even slightly surprised to find out that SOMA has been rescued from the horrible fate of more nightclubs opening.

    So where, precisely, does the city of San Francisco, in its wisdom, suggest that people open new bars, nightclubs or performance spaces?

    I know, I know... "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

  4. Chris Concannon says:

    Whenever you put together another can't-miss episode of your adventures with bureaucracy, I think of this paper from last year, "The destructive nature of power without status", here: http://www-bcf.usc.edu/~nathanaf/power_without_status.pdf

    But that's not very constructive. I've never been anywhere west of Kansas City, and I don't own or manage a business, so I know just what you should do with the Fire Marshal. From the abstract of the paper: "individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog, say 'I am filthy')". Arf!

  5. Brian Van Nieuwenhoven says:

    Well, this is just terrible.

    Is there any chance your architect may have messed up on assessing the wall issue in the first place? Not that it helps much, because you're in the nightclub business, and not the suing-people business.

    Century-old buildings can be hell to mess with. SF seems to give people a hard time mostly for the hell of it, but structural engineering specs are probably the one thing for which they have a good reason to be particular and demanding. Witness one foolish building speculator who thought he knew better:
    http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120504/central-harlem/building-collapses-on-west-123rd-street-harlem
    You're probably too far into this line of work to accept a Wile E. Coyote-like demise for your business or (god forbid) anyone inside it. With a (possible) support beam reconfiguration on one side, and a (possibly unnecessary) wall replacement on the other side, it looks like 3X costs (for a project that was "punch a wall, build out a few rooms") sounds about right. And it's a crummy outcome for something that should have been as easy.

    It's all because SF really doesn't want you to do anything new as a local business, anyway. You'd think they'd throw on a 100% sales tax to firmly put it all out-of-reach. This thing where you're trying to burrow through walls older than Moses just for the sake of qualifying for standard business permits in an affordable scenario... this is the sort of story that should be brought before the Board of Supervisors in order to show how ticky-tacky and absurd things have become. I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for them to listen, though.

  6. Chris Randall says:

    Every time you put up one of these posts, I'm left wondering "why on Earth does he bother? This is some quixotic shit right here." Bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy is prevalent in all the left-coast cities, but seems to be especially popular in San Francisco, for some reason I can't quite ascertain.

    Well, there but for the grace of Cthulhu go I. I think Brian makes a couple good points, but I don't know shit about fuck about this sort of thing; I own a moderately successful business, but we're not crazy enough to try and sell liquor or play that loud bang-bang music at all hours.

    So really, I'm just typing for the sake of typing at this juncture.

    • tjic says:

      Indeed. Reading JWZ's posts about government, interleaved with his comments that libertarians are CRAAAAAZYYY to want less government, I feel like a secular humanist arguing with a cult member. "So if I showed you pictures of the cult leader boning little boys, THEN would you admit it's a scam?" "What? Are you suggesting that there's life outside the cult? Sinner!"

      • Grey Hodge says:

        No, he very well understand less government regulation in some areas is a good thing. Libertarians, however, want so little government that people would be at the mercy or corporations. There is a balance that needs to be struck between government and rights, and government and large corporations. Right now, we have too much government in rights, too much government in small business, and too little government in large corporations. Small business has a hard time fighting and winning, as he demonstrates, so government grows too much there, while huge corporations can afford so much lobbying and campaign money that government is held back too much there.Government is like anything else, too much is bad, too little is bad. People who think government is always bad are just naive.

      • Jamie Zawinski says:

        tjic, I want you to know that I'm now banning you from commenting here not because I disagree with you, but because your constant off-topic rants about Libertarianism are boring, unhelpful, and repetitive. I understand that you have only that one troll-song that you like to sing, but we've all heard it already. Go sing it somewhere else.

  7. Jon Dowland says:

    I think I feel your pain. I have a similar sort of microcosm situation at work. Of course, it's not my money on the line. In my case, whenever I have to deal with an authority, I keep wanting someone to say "what you are trying to do makes sense." like a sponsor. Instead we inevitably get one piece of the puzzle blocked and nothing else. Oh then there's backtracking but that's another issue. If only there was a "relationship manager" who gave a shit and could help steer you through the morass.

  8. Jon Dowland says:

    I think I feel your pain. I have a similar sort of microcosm situation at work. Of course, it's not my money on the line. In my case, whenever I have to deal with an authority, I keep wanting someone to say "what you are trying to do makes sense." like a sponsor. Instead we inevitably get one piece of the puzzle blocked and nothing else. Oh then there's backtracking but that's another issue. If only there was a "relationship manager" who gave a shit and could help steer you through the morass.

  9. Rick Day says:

    Hi, new guy here sent by link from a common reader of blogs. We have a lot in common. It took us 20 months to do a simple conversion from C-1 commercial to A-3 assembly occupancy here in Atlanta. I've learned a few tricks about "The System", as I like to call our common sojourn.

    some scattershooting observations -

    Brick Wall Fire rating. All they want is a 2 hour flame retardancy, not double brick walls. So show them that your wall has a 2 hour capacity! Set up a mini propane torch, have them come out and for two friggin hours, watch the torch try to burn away the brick. Presto! You have the wall rated and have succeeded in taking back some of the wasted time they have taken from you. Even your architect should be able to certify this as rated. Also, worse case, you can line the inside of the wall with gypsum board fire rated to exceed that 2 hour burn spec. the key is to get their demanded rating, not follow their suggestion.

    Walk through connecting door- Obviously I don't have a copy of your plans or a site view so I'm approaching this holistically. Remember, your capacity, as you said, is tied to the number of inches of egress. IN the code, there are two types of 'doors' recognized "emergency exits" and "egress passages". Most of your capacity calculations primarily are the former first, and the latter where there is internal bottlenecks. Obviously, you are 'joining egress' in the brick wall, therefore not part of your emergency exit because it does not exit outside.

    Do your project in small parts, a month or so apart, as stand alone improvements. That should keep your conversion cost down to the point you do not have to worry about ADA egress upstairs. (Typically the locals do not care about it unless you bring up the issue. ADA, Federal, is only triggered if there is a complaint)

    You should be able to increase the size of your emergency exit doors cheaper than you can mess with that wall. But again, I'm flying blind here.

    I am not sure what kind of capacity you are seeking, but it seems a 36" reinforced knockout (Keep it without a door if possible to avoid an expensive fire rated metal door frame.) would pass muster as an egress exit. 48" is golden. I'll call this your 'connecting opening'. Get your useless piece of meat architect (who you may have a civil claim against for missing an obvious 2nd floor support. Did he think that floor floated on a rainbow?) to calculate the maximum width opening that can be knocked out of that wall for the connecting opening. Knock outs can be steel reinforced to maintain integrity to the load bearing requirements of the wall, I've got several in my buildings. There is always beams to be found, that exceed requirements, at any scrap metal place. You know your safe capacity, no matter what some arbitrary formulas might dictate. Keep your clicker low and your establishment safe, and you can just smile and take whatever capacity they want to dole out. Again, Captain Obvious says the key is to get open.

    Hope this helps, but you have probably already thought about this. I agree with the no bribe option. These fools are just power trippin' and costing people way too much money.

  10. Michael says:

    Well, not that it helps, but following your adventures with this in San Francisco and talking to people up here in Vancouver who are trying similar things I can only surmise that most of the West Coast would prefer that people just don't do anything.

    There was a coffee shop down the road from me a few years ago. I got to get to know the owners a bit better (husband and wife team), and they told me it took them 18 months to get all the permits lined up and then they got strung around another 6 months before the city did the final health inspection and allowed them to open it. They also told me that at City Hall people were holding out the hand before anything moved from one pile to the other.

    From what I could tell the whole idea of the coffee shop almost did them in. You could actually see the strain on them and then one day they just shut down without a warning never to be seen again.

    Interestingly enough that same year Vancouver elected a new mayor and over the first six months of his tenure he seemed to be cleaning house from top to bottom, including the old city manager and several senior managers in all kinds of departments.

    So.... Yeah, sucks and I wish the We(s)t Coast would be less..... dunno how you want to call it. It's just as frustrating at times for people who try to go to interesting / cool places, though at least we don't have our livelihood on the line.

    • Cow says:

      > "Yeah, sucks and I wish the We(s)t Coast would be less..... dunno how you want to call it."

      The term you're looking for is 'nanny state'. The entire West Coast is rife with it, although SF and Seattle are particularly bad examples. I finally gave up and moved back east a few years ago. My current city has bars and pubs all over, most of them open until 2 or 4am (from talking to folks in the industry, the standard last-call all-drinks-picked-up is 3:00am), and new bars/restaurants/cafes/etc. opening all the time. Oh, and live music pretty much everywhere.

      I'm no libertarian nutter--hell, I'm a progressive socialist--but one can see large roles for government without wanting government to step in and prevent other people from having fun.

      • Michael says:

        Yeah, I am rolling the idea of moving east again around in my head as well. I'll make a call come fall there are a few other things I need to wait and see how they work out.

        I am not so sure btw that "Nanny State" is really the right term. Clearly, that's where it had it's origins, but it strikes me more like a conservative attitude of "keeping the peace".

        Oh well. I found out recently that a friend is trying to open a tiny "hole in the wall" restaurant, I hope he makes it, but considering the permit horrors I have heard about for food establishments I am a bit cautious.

    • Matty J. says:

      JWZ for mayor! Run, man. Run.

      • DoctorMemory says:

        What, he hasn't already flushed enough time and money into the Pit of No Return? :)

        • Michael Turner says:

          No, this is a *good* idea, if done right. He should run as a Republican, while stressing that he's only an *emergency* Republican. He should get an endorsement from Jello Biafra. There are two major corporations using "DNA lounge" as names for meeting rooms -- jws could hit them up for donations or threaten to put them on a "wall of shame." Retread the Mozilla logo to have the dino stomping on a San Francisco skyline, with the campaign slogan, "You fuckers gonna BURN for this." OK, maybe that last one isn't so good. But the point is: get attention. If in fact there's abuse of power here, and the law is grey, only shame will work, and only attention will bring down shame.

  11. Andrew Lewis says:

    Wow. I don't have much to offer besides sympathies.

  12. Owen says:

    Sounds like your architect is not exactly competent.

    Like all investments eventually if the losses get too big you have to cut them.

    I dunno, if San Francisco doesn't want you there, why fight them? Move to Portland or somewhere else on the west coast.

  13. Joe Gillotti says:

    Jamie, why don't you go back to software development?