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Proposal would allow arcades in SF’s eastern neighborhoods

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A man plays pinball at Free Gold Watch in the Haight-Ashbury. The Planning Commission will consider an ordinance today that will allow arcades in more neighborhoods. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A proposed bar and arcade in the South of Market neighborhood could lead to more of such establishments opening in San Francisco amid a resurgence of popularity in arcade games throughout the U.S.

The Planning Commission today will consider an ordinance to amend the planning code and allow amusement game arcades in designated sections of SoMa, the Mission and Potrero Hill. Such businesses are defined as retail spaces that provide at least 11 amusement games like video games or pinball machines.

Arcade games have seen a renewed interest in recent years, particularly among the baby boomer and Generation X age groups. For many, the games are nostalgic.

If supported by the Planning Commission, the ordinance to allow arcade game facilities in the various neighborhoods would still need approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Currently, Free Gold Watch in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and Brewcade in Upper Market are the only arcade businesses operating in The City. Now, Coin-Op Game Room, with two other locations in Sacramento and San Diego, wants to open an arcade facility at 508 Fourth St.

In general, existing controls on arcades date back to the 1980s and harken to an even earlier period in the 1930s, when such activity was associated with gambling, said Michael Scheiss, executive director and founder of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda.

RENEWED POPULARITY

Matt Henri, owner of Free Gold Watch, noted pinball arcades provide an “intergenerational bridge” among those who visit them.

“It’s really a fun thing to do,” Henri said. “This is the sort of thing that gets people out of the house — it’s fun to do for all ages.”

Two years ago, Henri successfully lobbied Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who, along with Supervisor Scott Wiener, sponsored an ordinance exception to allow Henri’s business to open game arcades in the Haight and another, Brewcade, to open in the Upper Market neighborhood.

At the time, Henri collected some 1,000 signatures and 60 handwritten letters petitioning for the code exemption. Henri now has 53 arcade gaming (including pinball) machines alongside his existing T-shirt printing business. Brewcade has 21 machines.

“It’s an inexpensive alternative to the coffee house and retail scene,” Henri said of arcade games.

Pinball has experienced resurgence in the Bay Area due to its appeal from all generations, said d’Arci Bruno, assistant director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda.

“It brings nostalgia from adults who played the game as children and adolescents,” she said.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

Newer technology merging with traditional pinball mechanics has transformed the game and renewed its popularity. Potentially higher game scores, tracking of all-time winners and an enhanced set of lighting and sound effects make the game a more communal activity, according to Scheiss of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda.

The Bay Area, where numerous tech companies are headquartered, is home to five competitive leagues, which bring a heightened enthusiasm to the newly emerging arcade scene.

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