Saturday night marked the last hurrah for Geary Street’s beloved neighborhood bar KoKo Cocktails, but the owners want to reinvent the business as a new Polk Street watering hole called Hi Lo.
The transfer of the bar’s liquor license is set for two hearings before supervisors Tuesday. And as with almost any small change in the dense urban fabric of The City, the seemingly simple move — less than a half-mile away in this case — has resulted in controversy.
Facing displacement because of the California Pacific Medical Center’s plan to build a 555-bed hospital on Cathedral Hill, KoKo is getting support from one Polk Street neighborhood association and the cold shoulder from another. While Lower Polk Neighbors support the plan for Hi Lo’s move into a shuttered storefront at 1423 Polk St., the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association said enough is enough for the street’s thriving nightlife scene.
Once a haven for drugs, crime and prostitution, the bar’s current location at 1060 Geary St. took on new ownership in 2007, and regulars say things have since turned around for KoKo — and the block. If not for that type of community vouching, the Planning Commission might have ruled otherwise in May, when it unanimously granted permission for the new location.
Commissioner Gwyneth Borden said the overwhelming number of speakers supporting the bar convinced her that despite the area’s saturation of bars attracting drunken outsiders, the commission should encourage more community-building neighborhood establishments such as KoKo.
But despite only kind words from supporters and detractors about KoKo part-owner and neighborhood philanthropist Lori Martens, some are calling The City’s approval of the new location a clear case of nepotism. David Villa-Lobos, a mayoral candidate who’s an openly hostile opponent of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, said Chiu and Martens have worked for Lower Polk Neighbors, and that a less connected business owner would have a tough time getting city approvals for the street.
In a rare scheduling format for city meetings Tuesday, the bar’s liquor license is being heard in a Board of Supervisors committee on the same day it is up for approval by the full board. Contacted Friday, Chiu said he only tacitly knows Martens through the neighborhood group and wasn’t aware about the particulars of the liquor license, but knows the issue in general.
"While Polk Street has had a significant number of bars, my understanding is that [KoKo Cocktails] has fit in well with the neighborhood and been respectful of the neighbors," Chiu said. "If it were a brand-new bar and a brand-new presence, this would have been different."
Martens said if the liquor-license transfer is approved Tuesday, she will still have to go before the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in Sacramento. She expects to face opposition in both venues, and even if everything goes smoothly for her, the new location isn’t likely to open until next year, she said.
"We understand it’s a process," Martens said. "But it’s just that the process takes so long, and the financing is difficult for a business like ours."