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Could a Night Mayor Help San Francisco Revitalize Its Downtown?

Around the world, cities have hired “night mayors” to advocate for and grow the nightlife scene while ensuring safety. Nightlife advocates see an opportunity as the city tries to revitalize its downtown after the effects of COVID-19.

(TNS) — In 2012, Amsterdam's nightlife was on the brink. As tourists poured in to partake of the region's after-hours pleasures, the city center saw massive overcrowding. Between noise and safety issues, friction had reached a combustion point between bar and nightclub owners, local government and residents who just wanted a good night's sleep.

Enter the nachtburgemeester: Mirik Milan, Amsterdam's first "night mayor." An independent position, funded in part by the city and in part by local club owners, his task was to advocate for and grow the city's nightlife scene — all while working with residents, clubs and city officials to implement smart, forward-thinking policy around alcohol, safety, late-night transit and other infrastructure.

"There was an appetite for better communication between all the sides, to bridge the gaps. But it was also created to look at creative talent development," said Milan, noting that at the time, many of Amsterdam's young artists were leaving in droves for Berlin. "The mayor and I really tag-teamed on: What can we do to make Amsterdam a more attractive place to stay?"

A decade after Milan first assumed the title of night mayor, the model of nighttime governance he helped design can be found in more than 45 cities around the world. They're not all called night mayors: London has a night "czar"; New York decided on "Director of the Office of Nightlife," or D.O.N. No matter what you call it, the position is part of a growing, global movement to reframe nightlife as an invaluable pillar of a city's culture and economy, something to invest in, nurture and prioritize — especially following two-plus years of COVID restrictions and closures.

As for San Francisco? Mayor London Breed and business groups are united in getting people back downtown — city residents to offices, shops and happy hours, tourists into restaurants and hotels — and entertainment is certainly part of that. Breed's proposed budget, which the Board of Supervisors is expected to review today ( July 12), includes $8 million over the next two years for public events and art, helping shuttered storefronts to reopen, and other initiatives designed to revitalize the downtown area. Yet there's no specific plan for nightlife — nor a point person to serve as its advocate. When it comes to what happens after dark, this city remains effectively leaderless.

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San Francisco is renowned for many things, but late-night culture isn't one of them — at least, not for the past few decades. The question of why has so many answers it almost becomes rhetorical: Because public transit stops early. Because there are so few food options past 10 p.m. Because most of the artists who even want such a thing have been priced out of the city.

But on the heels of a pandemic that all but decimated the entertainment industry, there's a growing sense that the current moment represents an urgent, rare opportunity for the city. Nightlife advocates are jumping on the chance not just to bring the sector back to its pre-pandemic "normal" but to think big, look to cities around the world for inspiration — and reimagine our after-dark culture entirely.

"We have to start considering nightlife as an arts and culture platform, not as a sector to contain," said Desi Danganan, executive director of Kultivate Labs, a San Francisco nonprofit focused on arts and economic development in the Filipino community. "It needs to be nurtured, and it needs to be considered for funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission."

In 2016, Danganan and his business partner Marco Jastillana returned from a trip to Vietnam bursting with ideas for night markets, a free, all-ages staple of life after dark in many East and Southeast Asian countries. The pair created Undiscovered SF, a series of evening food markets in SOMA that proved wildly popular from 2017 through 2019, creating opportunities for mom-and-pop food vendors and bringing a neighborly block party vibe to a struggling area of downtown.

The markets also proved to be a crash course in the tangled web of red tape and fees particular to nighttime events in San Francisco. In large part due to the expense of a night market, Undiscovered SF's first post-COVID food crawl, scheduled for October 2022, will be held in the daytime.

"The city is like this gigantic octopus of different agencies and tentacles, and not all of the tentacles are in coordination with each other," said Danganan, noting that while some city agencies were incredibly supportive of their events, others seemed to be "actively working to make things harder."

Groups and individuals that regulate and support nightlife are scattered throughout city government. The Entertainment Commission issues permits, inspects venues for compliance on curfews and noise levels, and mediates disputes between clubs and their residential neighbors; the Office of Economic and Workforce Development has one full-time employee dedicated to the nightlife sector.

But those offices have limitations. For example, during the Omicron surge around New Year's Eve last year, when artists and music venue staff were faced with impossible choices around if and how to throw shows — neither city agency could provide guidance beyond the latest restrictions (or lack thereof) issued by the mayor's office.

"I think if you're inside government, you can only do so much. You can never be very critical of the mayor's office or say, 'Let's organize a protest,'" said Amsterdam's Milan, who has spent the past decade helping other cities develop nightlife advocacy plans and night mayor-equivalent positions through his consultancy, VibeLab. Their work helped create the London Night Time Commission, which strategizes to better support night-shift workers and extend the "active hours" of main streets around the city. And VibeLab's Global Nightlife Recovery Plan, conceived in conjunction with public health experts in 70-plus cities in 2020, provides a road map for how to safely reopen nightlife scenes based on case studies in Berlin, Paris, New York and more.

Some of its lessons would prove tough to replicate in San Francisco — or any U.S. city, for that matter: In countries like the Netherlands, for example, it helps that the federal government already invests in live music significantly via its annual budget. But certain structural ideas seem universal: "In my experience, you need people on the inside, people working from the top down — but then you also really need people organizing from the bottom up," said Milan. "You need people who are going to make some noise."

When it comes to advocacy in San Francisco, lobbying groups aren't lacking: Small music venue owners banded together in 2020 to form the Independent Venue Alliance, to more effectively push for pandemic relief. And the SF Bar Owner Alliance, which represents more than 350 San Francisco bars, made headlines in July of 2021 when it issued its own recommendations calling for proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to drink indoors, weeks before the city instituted its own mandate.

Ben Bleiman, founder of the SF Bar Owner Alliance — he also sits on the Entertainment Commission — scoffs at the notion that a night mayor might fix San Francisco's nightlife ills. He, too, pointed to the gauntlet of restrictive zoning laws, permitting, taxes and fees that a bar owner or event producer must surmount to get something new off the ground at night — but he said he thinks the power rests with the Board of Supervisors and San Francisco voters to "unstick some of the s—ty legislation that's built up over the last 30 years."

"We need to legalize performance and art," said Bleiman. "And actually incentivize it. Don't make it a labor of love. With the current permitting and zoning process, entertainment is outlawed in huge swaths of the city. And where it's legal, (nightlife) businesses have to spend so much money that they don't get back just to have one person there playing a guitar."

To that end, he's been encouraged by the city's willingness to innovate during COVID, as with the Just Add Music (J.A.M.) permits that allowed the city's parklets to become temporary, miniature music venues; he's currently working on converting those licenses to more permanent "limited live" permits. And he's excited about a new bill that would let restaurants and bars more easily sell food and to-go drinks during street fairs.

"Culture evolves very quickly, and I think our culture of nightlife is going to find new ways together," said Danagan, pointing to the evolution of underground rave culture in underutilized warehouses. "I think we're going to see cycles start to happen again with creative uses of empty office spaces and pop-ups. The question is, can our laws adapt quickly enough to foster it? Is the city going to encourage and nurture it? Or are they going to clamp down because it's not in compliance with these rules that are no longer aligned with our current reality?"

Danganan, for his part, is also attracted to the idea of a night mayor for San Francisco — as long as it comes with real power.

"To my understanding, a night mayor is about advocating within the city for the whole ecosystem of nightlife, the whole segment of the economy that happens after dark," said Danganan. "So, yes, I think we should have a night mayor. But the night mayor also needs to be able to affect policy and have the budget behind them to make change. We don't need another puppet leader."

After this story first published, Supervisor Matt Dorsey tweeted that he would seek a hearing to explore the night mayor idea.

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There are signs, if you know where to look, of San Francisco straining to become more livable for night owls: during the pandemic, the city tripled its number of 24-hour public restrooms, a pilot program first launched in 2019. On Valencia, which becomes a car-free promenade every weekend evening via the Shared Spaces program, the blocks between 14th and 24th streets are now illuminated by thousands of tiny, European-feeling cafe lights — a project implemented not by the city but through fundraising from local cafe owner and San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority Board Member Manny Yekutiel (the major donors were local tech CEOs). It's something Yekutiel is campaigning to replicate on 11 other commercial corridors.

But many insiders say the heaviest hitter in the fight to revive the city's nightlife is just getting teed up: local lawmakers' latest attempt to extend last call.

"If you go to cities in Europe and Latin America or Asia, you assume that there are things operating all throughout the night, because that's how cities are. That's part of their spirit," said California State Assemblymember Matt Haney, who recently co-sponsored Senate Bill 930, which would allow seven cities including San Francisco to extend last call in certain venues from 2 until 4 a.m. "Big, diverse, cosmopolitan cities like S.F. shouldn't shut down overnight."

If the proposed legislation sounds familiar, that's because a similar bill has been introduced at least four times in the past decade — both by Haney's co-sponsor, Senator Scott Wiener, and the latter's predecessor, Mark Leno — and each time, it failed. (Opponents argue more hours of serving alcohol would lead, simply, to more alcohol-related fights, noise complaints and safety issues.)

Haney said this time feels different. For one, it's no secret that San Francisco's entertainment sector, which as of a 2016 economic impact report was generating more than $6 billion in revenue, has been hit hard by COVID; another two hours of liquor sales would be a life raft. But Haney also detects a shift in sentiment.

"When people weren't able to go out during the pandemic, I think they realized how important nightlife was. I think there's a deeper understanding of its value," said Haney.

Two hours of extra booze sales might not sound like it can reshape a city's culture. But Mirik Milan would argue differently: one of his flagship programs as night mayor of Amsterdam was to grant 24-hour licenses to 10 venues on the outskirts of the city, directing foot traffic away from the city center and tempering the mayhem that occurred when everyone spilled out of the bars in the same neighborhood at the same time.

"What we did in Amsterdam with those 24-hour licenses ... those are really pinnacles of culture and activity," said Milan, noting that venues had to submit proposals for what they planned to build there as "multidisciplinary" arts spaces. He also enlisted neighborhood "hosts" — community officers without guns — to walk the entertainment district, de-escalate conflicts and help intoxicated people find transit. Under his tenure, the city saw alcohol-related incidents drop by 25 percent.

In San Francisco, the fight for 4 a.m. has a particularly strong ally in the LGBTQ community, as queer bars — places of refuge in the early days of the gay rights movement and throughout the AIDS crisis — have struggled and ultimately closed at disproportionate rates over the past decade.

Marke Bieschke, a veteran nightlife writer and publisher of 48 Hills, said he thinks a later last call could make the difference in whether some of those bars survive. (He is also a co-owner of the Stud, a historic SoMa queer bar that shuttered in 2020; the collective that owns it has been looking for a new physical home.)

But Bieschke sees the financial stability of the scene as just one piece of the puzzle: He worries about the cost of going out in the city and about the unique flavor and quality of San Francisco's nightlife; he's wary of what he sees as the increasing homogenization of the scene "accelerating an exodus of artists."

"We're having our first big electronic festival, which is great, but it's completely corporate, headlined by middle-aged white guys, and it's also named after a colonizer ... so I'm a little taken aback by that," said Bieschke, referring to promoter Goldenvoice's new Portola Music Festival, slated for September. (Goldenvoice's parent company, AEG, is owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has come under fire in recent years for donating to anti-LGBT initiatives.)

"My dream would be that we find a way to welcome people from all socioeconomic strata, all backgrounds, to feel safe, welcome and comfortable when they go out here," said Bieschke. "I'm afraid we're losing what little inclusive, DIY spirit we have left."


(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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