By: John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer
(03-04) 23:23 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco's Planning Commission voted late Thursday to let the music play on Nob Hill.
The commission voted 4-to-2 to approve a controversial plan to renovate the Masonic Center into a modern entertainment venue run by a major concert promoter in one of San Francisco's most storied neighborhoods.
It was a hotly disputed issue with undertones of racism and classism that pitted the Masons and promoter Live Nation against about a dozen well-heeled homeowners associations concerned about noise, traffic and crime.
"I'm relieved," Lee Smith, an executive with Live Nation, said after a more than four-hour meeting where backers and opponents filled the commission chamber and spilled into two overflow rooms.
The vote probably won't be the last word on renovating the 52-year-old auditorium and nearly doubling the number of live evening shows there.
The two sides for months had been in negotiations that continued until minutes before Thursday's meeting. After the vote, the commission urged the two sides to continue talking, but an appeal to the Board of Supervisors was assured and a lawsuit possible, opponents said.
"We'll continue to talk," said Stanley Landfair, of the Nob Hill Legal Coalition neighborhood group. "And I'm sure there will be an appeal."
The venue has played host to artists such as Bob Dylan and Van Morrison for more than 50 years. Its operators say they have taken steps to address neighbors' concerns, including agreeing to neighborhood cleanup after shows, ending almost all weeknight shows by 11 p.m. and weekend shows by 11:30 p.m. and not allowing buses or trucks to park overnight on California Street.
Backers say revitalizing the 1950s-era building would reverse the flow of entertainment dollars to renovated mid-size venues outside San Francisco, such as Fox Theater in Oakland.
"They're really taking the shows and the vitality we'd like to see in San Francisco," said Rob Black, a vice president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.
The Masons want to lease the center long-term to Live Nation, which has been seeking a mid-size venue in San Francisco since it lost the Warfield Theater to promoter AEG Live in 2008. Live Nation has been managing the Masonic for the past 14 months.
The plan calls for about $6 million in renovations, including pulling out some fixed seats and terracing the auditorium floor. A state-of-the-art sound and light system would be added, reducing the amount of equipment necessary to load in and out.
The venue would get a commercial kitchen and eight bar or concession areas. The capacity would increase from 3,282 people to 3,500 during general admission shows. Events would continue to range from concerts to high school graduations to banquets. The exterior would remain as is.
Evening events like concerts and comedy shows would jump from an average of 50 a year to 95 allowed, with a maximum of 70 of those able to be general admission shows.
That increase in frequency was a main concern of neighbors, who worried about traffic, ticket scalping and thousands of potentially drunk people streaming out of a venue across from Grace Cathedral and Huntington Park.
"I don't think any self-respecting city in the world would allow such an inappropriate use," neighbor Bob Dantzler told the commission. "Please use your common sense and your sense of decency."
Another neighbor, Stephanie Leta, said she usually felt safe walking home at night but not on nights when there were events at the Masonic.
"It's a scary experience coming home when there's an event going on versus when there is not," Leta said. "It's a very different experience."
Commissioner Gwyneth Borden said opposition to the project because it would bring "general admission" audiences to the hilltop neighborhood suggested racism.
"They don't want people like me, who look like me, coming to Nob Hill," said Borden, who is African American. "I'm sorry, but that's the way I see it."
E-mail John Coté at email@example.com.
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