Garcia: Armory thriving despite worries over adult website

In San Francisco’s highly contentious neighborhood politics, development projects are often treated like whipping posts.

Rarely has that case been made more clearly than the example of the Armory building in the Mission District, which after decades of being fought over by business interests and anti-gentrification forces, landed in the hands of the country’s largest producer of fetish pornography.

To say that the transformation of the former National Guard outpost into the new home for Kink.com was drenched in irony would be putting it mildly. The groups that resisted the development of the 96-year-old Moorish castle got what they deserved. They fought market-rate housing, high tech and other uses for the site, and, as a result, they created a porn palace fit for a bondage king.

I revisited the Armory Studios recently, some 3½ years after Kink.com founder Peter Acworth took over the majestic building and began using its dungeon-like quarters for his special brand of filmmaking. A one-time dark, homeless hangout, the Armory today sports new windows, new lighting, new heating and new electrical wiring throughout the 200,000-square-foot-structure.

Former soldier quarters have been converted into offices, sprawling training areas into movie sets. A one-time firing range now serves as Kink’s post-production headquarters. Acworth, who grew up in the English Midlands, gave me a tour of the facilities dressed in shorts and flip-flops, as casual as the Armory is spacious. About the only ode to tradition is an upstairs room that has been dressed up as an Edwardian dining room — for film purposes only.

“This building turned out to be a perfect fit for us,” Acworth told me. “People were hoping for more juice than turned out to be here.”

He was referring to the organized protests in the neighborhood that immediately followed the news that the Armory had been taken over by a porn producer. Officials from churches, schools and some neighboring businesses expressed initial outrage over the building’s sale to Acworth, expecting somehow that it would be turned into some lurid stage of salacious behavior.

Instead the Armory has been quietly upgraded — a new asset to the neighborhood that handles its work behind high concrete walls.

Recently, Acworth leased the building’s massive drill court (as in National Guard marching) site to the Armory Community Center for the purpose of converting into a space for educational, sports and entertainment uses. It will be walled off from the rest of the facility so as to not mix uses — not that anyone would necessarily know about private webcam shows taking place a few floors up.

“I’ve made friends with a lot of the neighborhood business,” he said. “When we moved in some people were upset. But there is always fear of the unknown and it seems everybody got over it very quickly.”

One group that never got over it is the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, which led the fight (along with longtime organization ally, Supervisor Chris Daly) to block a string of proposed housing developments at the Armory, even fighting a proposed server farm in the cavernous structure.

The folks from MAC, as it’s not very affectionately known, have been at the forefront of other head-scratching efforts to battle new development in the community, insisting on unbalanced levels of subsidized housing for the poor, even when it’s clear that no developer could survive using that formula.

Expensive condominiums once-planned for the Armory would “gentrify” the neighborhood, so they never got built. A few years ago a new housing development for the old Kelly-Moore paint store on Cesar Chavez Boulevard was opposed by MAC, whose members occupied the storefront in protest.

That project ultimately was approved by the Planning Commission, but not without a lengthy battle, the very kind that left the Armory vacant for more than 30 years.

Yet it’s vacant no more, in large part because Acworth was able to quietly buy the building and to have it sail through planning channels because there was no change in the structural “use” of the building.

In terms of the misguided neighborhood fights that take place throughout San Francisco, this turned out to be a case where the opposition was gagged, whipped and hogtied. And they didn’t even know it.

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