Zoning patch aims to clear final hurdle for gay SF bathhouses

A final hurdle to reopening gay bathhouses in San Francisco is expected to be lifted by Pride month. The proposed zoning change will also allow adult sex venues to operate in neighborhoods historically home to LGBTQ neighborhoods.

A ban on these businesses having locked rooms, enacted in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic, was officially lifted in early 2021. Yet zoning restrictions remain in place, preventing adult sex businesses to operate in most of the city.

The problem is why Eros, the sex club for queer and trans men, hasn’t opened in its new Tenderloin location yet. In December, he closed his longtime home on Upper Market Street and began moving into 132 Turk Street.

The building had been the site of the gay Bulldog Baths in the late 1970s and 1980s. More recently a dog groomer and kennel using the name of the former gay bathhouse had operated in the space followed by a collective of artists.

Today, the upper floors of the former bathhouse are converted into apartments with the bathhouses historic address at 130 Turk Street. Eros takes over the property’s 4,000 square foot retail space.

It includes a mezzanine where a play area is being built for Eros customers. There will be a further downstairs play area and cloakroom, with plans to include one or two semi-private bedrooms with doors at a later date.

“A lot of this space was totally ready for us,” said Eros co-owner Ken Rowe. “If you know anything about sex clubs, a sex club is a mixture of a dog kennel and an artist collective. The existing rooms seemed ready for us.”

But Eros cannot accommodate customers in its new space until the city updates its zoning for adult businesses due to a decision by zoning administrator Corey Teague in December 2020. Teague had determined that adult sex venues as defined by the city’s health code were considered a type of adult business under the city code.

These establishments include adult bookstores, video stores, and theaters historically frequented by men in order to engage in sex with other men on the premises. They are widely banned in much of San Francisco, including LGBTQ neighborhoods such as Castro, Upper Market, Tenderloin, and South of Market.

To lift the de facto ban on adult sex work, District 8 gay supervisor Rafael Mandelman presented a cleanup zoning proposal at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting. He had spearheaded the legislative campaign to bring traditional gay bathhouses back to San Francisco.

“But just being cleared doesn’t mean people can open them because there are all these zoning restrictions,” Mandelman said. “They are not allowed in many parts of the city where it would make sense for them to open.”

Its new order will update the definition of adult sex venues to include retail sales and service uses. It will also allow them to operate 24/7 in the Castro and upper Market Street between Octavia Boulevard and Castro Street. They would also be allowed on Folsom Street between Dore Alley and Seventh Street, throughout SOMA west of Seventh Street and on the 100 block of Turk Street where Eros plans to reopen.

These businesses would need to apply for a Conditional Use Permit if they wanted to open in other parts of SOMA or in the Mission, Dogpatch and Bayview. They should also seek permission to operate between 2 and 6 a.m. at these locations.

Because it would require a planning commission vote, residents of those areas could weigh in to allow an adult sex business to open.

“We are paving the way so that, in terms of planning and zoning, bathhouses can open where they make sense,” said Mandelman, who expects his ordinance to be approved.

The planning commission must first consider it before the supervisory board votes on it, probably at the end of April or May. By July, Mandelman said he hopes to see operators like Eros open for business.

Rowe expects to get the green light from planning staff as soon as the new zoning becomes law. In the meantime, Eros continues to This text will be the fundraising link > to help recoup his moving expenses.

A short walk from the Powell Street Muni and BART station, the new location should be more accessible for customers, predicted Rowe, who takes an average of 20 calls a day to find out when Eros will be open again.

“We have guys at the door almost every day of the week,” Rowe said.

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