Vote on Landmark Status Postponed for Historic San Francisco Bar

The Gold Dust Lounge faces eviction after the property owners sued the bar last week for not honoring its lease.

By Patricia Decker
|  Wednesday, Mar 21, 2012  |  Updated 9:36 PM PDT
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Saving San Francisco's Gold Dust Lounge

Josh Keppel

A new retail tenant reportedly wants to take over the space at 247 Powell St. as well as the neighboring two-story retail space at 301 Geary St.

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Saving San Francisco's Gold Dust Lounge

NBC Bay Area's Brent Cannon Sits down with Catherine Hill to discuss her new Song and her Plan to Save the Gold Dust Lounge.
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The fate of the Gold Dust Lounge, a bar in San Francisco's Union Square neighborhood facing eviction, hangs in the balance on borrowed time.

The bar known for its cheap drinks has overstayed its welcome -- its lease expired on March 10, and the property owners sued the bar last week for not honoring its lease -- but supporters have been grasping at political solutions to save the bar since landlord Jon Handlery gave notice in December that the lease was being terminated.

A new retail tenant reportedly wants to take over the space at 247 Powell St. as well as the neighboring two-story retail space at 301 Geary St.

One of those routes to save the bar involves protecting it as a historic landmark. Although the city's historic preservation commission was set to vote on the proposal today, the commissioners, after casting several tie votes this afternoon, postponed the matter to a closed session at its next meeting, when commissioners hope all members will be present to weigh in on the issue.

The status sought by the Gold Dust has been granted to at least one other San Francisco business, City Lights bookstore. In 2001, the store was awarded the status for its role in the life of the city, rather than for architectural significance.

The request, according to some merchant representatives at today's meeting, is recasting a landlord-tenant dispute into a historic preservation dispute.

Jim Chappell, who is on the Union Square Business Improvement District board of directors, called the application for historic status "just a smokescreen over what is a landlord-tenant dispute." Other more appropriate avenues exist to resolve this dispute, he said.

Karin Flood, the business improvement district's interim executive director, said the group had tried to stay out of the issue but decided to weigh in at today's meeting because it will set a precedent for property owners and businesses in the district.

Regardless of how the commission votes at its April 4 meeting, supporters of the Gold Dust Lounge are banking on help from the Board of Supervisors. Earlier this month, Supervisor Christina Olague proposed a moratorium on conversions in the Union Square district.

The property owners plan to convert the lounge into a chain retail store, Express, and the proposed legislation, if passed, would block that conversion.

Flood said that the business improvement district is opposed to that legislation, because it dictates how landlords should use their commercial space. "It really should be up to property owners," she said. "(Union Square) really is the heart of retail in San Francisco."

At Tuesday's regular Board of Supervisors meeting, Olague said that she expects to present the legislation next week.

"For those members of the public who are wondering, it is not a closed issue here," Olague said Tuesday. "It's just we're still in  conversations with those parties that are affected."

A publicist for the bar, Lee Houskeeper, said that the establishment "lives to fight another day" because of Olague's proposed resolution.

If and when that resolution passes the land use committee, it would go before the historic preservation commission, which would have 90 days to approve it.

"But the Board of Supervisors still trumps (the commission), and it doesn't matter that (the commission) voted not to approve the designation," Houskeeper said.

The commission released a report Friday reviewing historical analyses submitted by representatives of both the bar owners, James and Tasios Bovis, and Handlery.

The report found that while the bar is "an important local business and gathering spot," it does not qualify as a city historic landmark.

Furthermore, landmark designation would only protect the physical features of the space and not "what is valued most -- the continued operation of the bar," the report said.

Today, after commission staff and opponents to the status proposal rejected the idea that the Gold Dust lounge should be protected for aesthetic reasons, some speakers made the argument that sometimes the idea of a place is more important that the place itself.

The Gold Dust Lounge has been a popular watering hole for noteworthy locals including Willie Brown, Herb Caen and Janis Joplin, among others, and is one of the few remaining bars in an area once known as a center of San Francisco nightlife, according to the owners.

Although the idea resonated with at least one of the six commissioners present -- Commissioner Richard Johns -- several commissioners, including Johns, argued that the request was below the role of the commission.

"Museums are the place to preserve the idea of the place," Johns, a historian, said.

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