The decision by an Upper Haight silk-screen business to put pinball machines in unused spaces has created a vibrant gaming site. But talk about a gutter ball: city laws do not allow it — although efforts are underway to change those laws some say are meant for a bygone era.
In the 1980s, as games such as “Pac-Man” and “Asteroids” created a generation of arcade machine addicts, San Francisco cracked down on the behavior, citing concerns ranging from sidewalk congestion to “petty crimes in the vicinity of these machines.”As gaming has gone mobile in recent years, migrating to the smartphone, arcade machines have become relics, and some lawmakers say so have the laws regulating them.
San Francisco does not allow more than 10 arcade machines per location, and the exact amount is tied to a business’ square footage. That law could threaten the gaming craze at Free Gold Watch, a silk-screen print shop at 1767 Waller St. that opened in May 2007.
Business owner Matthew Henri, 35, initially put a few arcade machines inside the store to help draw more foot traffic and added more after they proved popular. Today, hundreds come each week to play pinball or other games, some stopping in on a regular basis after work for about 20 minutes of gaming. A pinball league has even been established.
While Henri’s inventory has grown to 34 machines, existing city law only allows for six, basd on the size of the site.Supervisor London Breed is hoping to change that. Today, the Board of Supervisors will vote on legislation that would exempt the business from the current square-footage requirement.
Supervisor Scott Wiener has also joined the effort and proposed lifting the requirement for the Upper Market Neighborhood Commercial Transit District, where owners of the Blackbird bar at 2200 Market St. plan to have vintage pinball machines.
But additional measures are still being sought to address the limit of 10 arcade machines. Breed and Wiener are working on subsequent legislation that would amend the police code to allow for more than 10 machines at locations throughout The City.
Henri said he hopes San Francisco will embrace the culture of arcades as has been done in Seattle and Portland, Ore. For Henri, the gaming business is about the community that grows up around it, not the bottom line.
“We don’t pay our rent in quarters over here,” Henri said.
Any business that uses what is known as a mechanical amusement device must obtain a permit from the Entertainment Commission. The initial application costs $744 and annual permit renewal costs $297. There are currently permits for such devices in 81 city locations.