The Fate of the Cow Palace

To many of us, the Cow Palace represents one thing: the Dickens Christmas Fair, where so many of us enjoy spending a good portion of the winter months, reveling in Dickensian England, surrounded by dozens of our closest friends and entertaining the public.

But Dickens Fair only takes up a small side-building of the Cow Palace, for just two months out of the year. The rest of the year, the Cow Palace remains a hollow shell of the grand gathering place it was in decades past. Chainlink fences separate it from the surrounding community, the gigantic parking lot is typically a desolate stretch of asphalt, and when niche events do use the venue, they give very limited contribution to the surrounding community.

Even the Dickens Fair doesn't really bring anything to the neighborhood as a whole. A few actors may pop over to McDonalds or KFC for a snack occasionally, but predominantly the money that the event generates stays within the chain link fence.

Now that the city is planning to buy the Cow Palace, level the existing venue and replace it with housing, shopping centers and a school. Things that the community desperately needs all twelve months of the year. They want to destroy the venue in which we've spent the past many years celebrating the holidays in an unparalleled manner. So our instinct is to resist, to fight back, to petition the city to keep the venue as it is, so we may continue out revels.

But please, take a step back. Look at the Cow Palace as a whole, instead of just our small portion of it. Look at the community that the Cow Palace is in the center of. Is it really the best possible use for such a huge plot of land? Should we really be fighting to save a venue that is out of code, out of its time, and out of sync with the neighborhood in which it resides?

The Dickens Fair didn't start at the Cow Palace. We can move our little slice of England to another venue and it will continue to live for decades to come. I urge you all to keep this in mind over the coming months. Instead of pouring your energy into "saving" something that's already showing signs of decay, why not instead pour it into finding a new venue for the event that we all love so much.

Don't fight to keep hold of the past. Look forward to rebuilding fresh for the next chapter of the Dickens Fair's history.


  1. What’s ironic is that the pro-demolish-TCP crowd who are citing the need for a decent-sized grocery store and such seem to forget that they demolished the neighborhood Safeway (on Geneva) 20 years ago, to make room for “smaller, local businesses”. And condos.

    (at least, that’s how my husband who used to live in that area remembers it playing out. It might have been longer than 20 years ago, he admits)

    TCP isn’t as underutilized as you make it appear, imho – it’s still used for concerts, collectors’ shows and suchlike. I’ll agree that it ain’t the prettiest of places, but I don’t think it’s redundant, either…

    As for where DF, in particular, would go… they’re going to have a tough time with a move, and no mistake. TCP is, for all its flaws, relatively cheap. Finding a comparably priced location anywhere in SF/on the peninsula is going to be a challenge…

    • I think a 20+ year buffer takes the edge off the irony. Essentially, you’re saying the current planners disagree with their parents’ ideas. Not really that surprising. :)

      Even if they have events every weekend, that still leaves the place empty 5/7 of the time. And I really don’t think they’re packing the place like they used to. Which is why the original plan of leasing the west parking lot and adjacent property for development to fund a retrofit would have made sense (if both sides hadn’t gotten greedy).

      To be honest, if they put a few levels of underground parking and planned it accordingly, they could use the same amount of property to host an even nicer venue using only a fraction of the property, and have plenty left over to make everyone happy with schools and shopping, with housing above.

      Yes, I’m sure it will be a challenge to find a great place for future Dickens Fairs. That’s part of why I hope people don’t get too focused on saving a sinking ship. That energy would be much better spent researching new venues.

      As ren faire learned, you don’t necessarily need to keep the event in the same city to keep it alive. Nut Tree may have been a disaster, but the Casa faire has as much life and vibrancy for the current generation as Black Point had for us back in the day. Just as the Cow Palace became just as much of a home as the pier used to be for Dickens.

  2. A very pragmatic response

    For a start, there are more activities held at the Cow Palace than the Dickens Fair. Second, it is up to the city to then provide a suitably competitive venue for similar sizes of participants for similar prices in the local area. Frankly, there are (next to) none. The incessant demand by global corporate interests price out the Moscone Center with the exception of WonderCon. All that I can think of as an alternative would be the San Francisco Concourse, and that doesn’t have the benefit of city co-ownership to bring prices in line with community interests.

    Level the aging Cow Palace, certainly – but only if you can offer a viable alternative to its various users.

    • Re: A very pragmatic response

      Lets say, hypothetically, that they were not able to provide an equivalently priced entertainment venue. Would it be a deal breaker to you?

      The way I see it, even if there are plenty of events to keep the place full, the fact that it gives nothing back to the surrounding community and the benefit that housing, schools and shopping could bring in its place, makes it a hard sell to come up with a scenario in which keeping the Cow Palace is a Good Thing.

      The fact that the place isn’t up to code and they can’t afford to make it so just puts the nail in the coffin. Maybe if the original deal of leasing the western part of the property for development in order to fund a retrofit of the venue might have been a viable option. But since both parties got greedy and that’s no longer on the table, I think using the land for the community’s benefit is the better of the two options.

      Housing, schools and shopping are vital to a community. Entertainment venues aren’t.

      • Re: A very pragmatic response

        I disagree with your premise that it “gives nothing back” to the surrounding community. If nothing else, it remains a revenue generator for the city, and that helps pay for services enjoyed by local residents.

        It may well be less of a revenue generator than Moscone, but for the level of clientèle, it does all right.

        I agree that any discussion about the future of the Cow Palace and its site should be holistic, and involve the neighborhood in deciding highest & best use for the site. My tuppence though, is that one has to equally consider how few spots there are for a large venue like that, and handing it off to private and commercial interests will pretty much guarantee the permanent loss of such a civic site.

        As for affordable housing, one cannot simply disregard Daly City, South San Francisco, or Visitacion Valley if you insist on remaining within the perimeter of the SF County line. Additionally, development along the 3rd St rail will bring other benefits their part of the city.

        Also: regarding my issue of substitution, consider the loss of the old Playland site. Eventually, an adequate child-friendly site was recovered in Zeum. Ultimately this was a ‘fair’ trade in my mind, but the timing could have been better for the city’s families.

        Incidentally, there’s a similar long-standing argument, regarding the Goodman Lumber site on Bayshore near my home.

  3. I think you bring a Very Valid point, That we DO need to step back and look at the problem from more then just the Dickens POV.

    I just wanted to point out that IF the Fair did move it would suffer a decent amount since it has been there for so long. The major issue I see is if Dickens is forced to stop for even a year then it will be REALLY hard to get to going again. Major Changes like a lose of Venue cause many supporters and fans to stop attending because they assume the event will stop, we are seeing this right now with my Ballet Company, Many people stoped subscribing because our founder died and they assumed the company did at the same time. We have had to work extra hard to remind people we are still here. I think this is a major concern for Dickens Fair since most of the attendees are either regulars or people who hear via Word of Mouth. So if half of the regulars we to not show up, how many Word of Mouthers would not show up?

    The second issue is the larger one of all the fucking bureaucratic red tape it would take to host the fair at any other Venue in the city, and I don’t know of any other places in the bay area that are large enough (I admit I have NO CLUE what is in Berkely or Oakland).

    And the most practical problem with Moving the fair is simply what other areans have that much parking?

    Once again i feel you bring up a VERY VALID point. Perhapse the solution is using half the land for something like a grocery store and post office. But we also need to remember that, well, that is not the best neighborhood, so how long will it be before anything they put there falls in to disrepair?

    Thanks for showing another side of the argument.

    • I absolutely agree with most of this. Many of the concerns you’re bringing up are the same things that were being discussed when we had to move the ren faire out of Black Point. They hosted it in a crappy location for a few years while still looking for an ideal new home. And now that it’s in Casa, it’s back to taking on a life of its own.

      Likewise, the Dickens Fair itself closed down for several years before re-opening at the Cow Palace (it used to be on the pier, near Fisherman’ Warf). It took a little while for people to find it again, and there was some attrition in the cast. But now it’s back to being just as vibrant as it was back in the day.

      I’m not saying there aren’t logistical issues that need to be addressed. There definitely are. I just think we should be focusing our energy on finding a way to reinvent the next iteration of Dickens Fair, rather than clinging to the one that we’re used to. There are no sacred cows. (pun intended) It’s time to roll up our sleeves and start getting creative.

      that is not the best neighborhood, so how long will it be before anything they put there falls in to disrepair?

      Have you been to East Palo Alto lately? A once-crappy neighborhood is now thriving. And it has a lot less population around it than Daly City. If they use the property wisely, they’ll be improving the quality of the whole neighborhood, not just creating an oasis in the middle of crap. That’s why I’d like to see this happen.

      • Have you been to East Palo Alto lately?
        Umm, no Never, actually…My major concern is what sort of housing are they talking about putting in, most of that area is low income housing that is not properly checked or patrolled by police so harbors many drug related violence issues.

        I fully agree that people need to start looking for new venues. I am getting the vibe from all the emails I have received in regards to the CP that people feel this was snuck in on them and they never got a chance to make their point until recently. This of course brings out the “OH NO YOU DID NOT JUST TRY THAT ON ME” feeling in everyone which can be slightly irrational.

        I am glad you are optimistic and not afraid to post your views. Thanks for showing the other side of the coin

        • EPA was very much the same situation. Low income housing, drugs galore, and a crime rate through the roof. So they leveled some of the craptasic freeway-side slums, put in a hotel on one side of the freeway and shopping (IKEA, Best Buy, etc) and condos on the other.

          The traffic brings business into the community, which funds additional police enforcement, which drives down the crime. And in Daly City, the good elements of the community would be more than happy to see the bad elements go. Especially if they then have safe stores to shop in and a local school to send their kids to.

        • As for it sneaking up on people, I assume you mean people at our level? The discussions between the city and the venue have apparently been going on for quite some time. The initial plan was for the city to lease 13 acres of what is now the west parking lot for development, which would give the venue the funds it needed to retrofit the building to address the code violations it’s currently violating. But both sides got greedy, negotiations fell to shit, and that shit rolled down hill to the event holders, and finally down to the event staff. We just weren’t aware of what was happening until it was too late to really do anything constructive about it.

          • I don’t have a dog in this fight as I’ve never been to DF (my loss, I know), but as a city government employee, I can attest that city council/planning commission meetings are woefully underattended. Sure, they may be dull most of the time, but city government, IMHO, affects folks’ day-to-day lives much more than state or even federal government. Plus, it’s infinitely easier to access local government and have your voice heard, assuming you take the time to get active.

            • Preach it, brother.

              Hmmm. Once we’re done fixing Hollywood, maybe we can use some of the same tools to get people more involved with local government. There are definitely some overlaps there, technologically speaking.

      • I’ve been to EPA lately, and they put in a big development, and things have started to fail. EXPO is gone, now a vacant hulk. And what has all the shopping done for EPA? There’s still no grocery store in the entire city. The schools are still in terrible disrepair with some of the worst scores in the state. And there’s still a huge crime problem. It’s still a crappy neighborhood, maybe a little less crappy, but outside of the little oasis near the University exit, little has changed.

        • Is it a vacant hulk? I thought they replaced it with something else shortly after it closed. I think that had more to with the redundancy of that store and IKEA than anything else.

          But I concede the school and grocery arguments, and withdraw EPA as a comparison.

          • Yep. Totally vacant. And not remotely competitive with IKEA. It was high end fixtures and finishings for yuppie-mansions. They thrive in places like San Ramon, but I don’t think the Palo Alto audience they were aiming for will deign to go to EPA.

            The thing is, EPA is actually a good comparison of what will happen in Daly City – minor improvements that bring minimum wage jobs at big box stores without actually improving the neighborhood conditions in any way.

  4. If there are other venues, I would urge you to mention them to the Dickens Faire organizers, but they are few and far between. Cow Palace provides an alternative area for events that can’t afford big centrally located areas or fairgrounds.

    Also the supermarket argument is kinda bunk. Had the supermarket chains determined they wanted into that neighborhood they would be there. McDonalds and KFC/TacoBell certainly had no problems, neither do the two liquour stores by the local bus stop. What don’t they buy out Savers? that would make a great grocery store.
    My suspicion is someone wants that land cheap and they are going to build condos or an office building that will be of very little use to the locals.

    • A community needing a supermarket is not he same thing as a supermarket chain wanting to expand into that community. It’s a much harder sell to come in as a solo storefront in a neighborhood that is in disrepair than it is to come in as part of a larger development effort to revitalize a community.

  5. The Cow Palace is more than just Dickens Fair. There aren’t any other large scale venues left in the bay area that aren’t strictly for high-end concerts and sports events. And the Cow Palace is used year round for many events. It’s a rare weekend that it goes unoccupied. Meanwhile, the parking alone brings a huge tax base to the city. Parking at the Cow Palace is a multi-million dollar a year industry.

    Meanwhile, for the last SEVEN years, the property immediately across the street, that once was a grocery store, that shut down and remained a derelict, graffiti riddled, vandalism marked waste of land has recently been turned into condos. But the city needs a grocery store the Senator cries out! It needs land to build schools! Well I call bullshit. Start with the property that already belongs to the city and show that you can do something with that. Once you’ve got a track record, then let’s talk about land being used for other purposes belonging to other people.

    Senator Yee is playing politics. They were in the midst of arranging a long-term lease of a large portion of the Cow Palace property when they started making this end run around the negotiations. While the petty senator from San Mateo tries to spin this as care for the community to provide grocery, school, blah blah blah, it’s just not so.

    • Not so rare, actually. Their events schedule shows they only have events 1-2 weekends a month for the next few months, and (with the exception of the rodeo) are vacant during the week. And what percentage of those events actually use the building(s) and parking lots to their full capacity?

      I don’t disagree that the current situation is politically fucked up. If the original negotiations had stayed on track, the city would be leasing the 13 acres that are now the west parking lot for their needs, the Cow Palace would be using the revenue to retrofit their out-of-code buildings, and everyone would be happy. But the Cow Palace got greedy in the negotiations, and the city responded with equal childishness with the political run-around.

      Of course, the perfect solution would be to use fraction of the land with underground parking for a new Cow Palace and the rest for development. But since both the venue and the city are being dicks about the negotiations, I just don’t see that happening. And given the option between the Cow Palace as it exists now (which, in my opinion, wastes more land than it makes good use of), and using the land for development, I think the latter sounds more desirable.

      Mostly, though, I just wanted to get the conversation going, and open people’s eyes to the larger controversy, so people don’t blindly fall into the save Christmas and cotton candy mindset, just because we happen to use the venue a few weeks out of the year.

      If folks truly have a strong opinion that the Cow Palace should remain intact, not just for the sake of Dickens, but for the sake of Daly City and the bay area as a whole, I encourage you to take Adam’s advice and show up at the 1 April meeting and participate in local politics.

      But if their reaction is based solely on wanting the venue to remain intact just for because we hold Dickens fair there, I hope they will dig a little deeper into the issue and form a more informed opinion once they’ve thought through both sides of the argument.

  6. well written, hon. I didn’t know that was the plan for the land, and I agree that things like school and accessible shopping are much more needed in that neighborhood than that giant old drafty barn of a place.

  7. I appreciate you bringing up the “other side” of the argument. I have a couple of friends who live in Daly City and they are very angry at the idea that people who are only part of the community to make money or enjoy their hobby (the Dickens folks) are making such a fuss in local politics. If Dickens wasn’t hosted at the Cow Palace, would they even care? It is about DCF having a venue, and that is politics, just like Yee is playing.

    But as many have already pointed out, the Palace hosts many other events. It still has a livestock fair in October, there is the tattoo convention, a computer tech fest, and other events that use the venue. Those events may not bring income to the area, but they contribute to the overall tax base and benefit all of Daly City.

    What I want to know is if the events that Cow Palace host are contributing enough revenue to the city or if it would be better for the city to level the palace and build as they wish. I don’t think that I, or anyone else who isn’t part of the community has a right to make that decision. It isn’t my neighborhood and while I would be sad to see Dickens suffer, I don’t want my fun to be at the expense of an entire community.

    However, I also feel that Miss Emelia has made a good point, is leveling the Cow Palace the only option, or just the one that will make a state legislator a name for himself?

    • If Dickens wasn’t hosted at the Cow Palace, would they even care?

      Bingo! And for the folks for whom the answer is yes, then by all means get out there and raise hell in local politics! But for those who are blindly following the save Christmas and cotton candy diatribe, I hope they’ll stop and look further into the issue before choosing a side.

      No, leveling the Cow Palace isn’t the only option. Nor the best one. The original plan was for the city to lease the 13 acres that comprise the west parking lot for development, and for the venue to use that income to renovate the Cow Palace and address its many code violations. Then the Cow Palace got greedy in the negotiations, and the city fought back with just as much greed and idiocy, and we’re forced into this all-or-nothing political fight. It’s bullshit. No argument there.

      But, given that, I still maintain that the city winning the battle would be the lesser of two evils.

  8. Information

    Here is Cow Palace’s Schedule of Events – so I put it to you, what is the cost:benefit of retaining/losing this list of events.

    With the exception of the summer months, there appears to be a paying event every month.

    This leads me to another query: the alleged “impossibility” of redeveloping the site and bringing it up to code. I think that question has to be answered with an eye towards all the possible uses, and what the scale will be. I have noticed a perilous inflation in conference venues locally and nationally, since any one venue is competing with everyone else in the nation. I believe it should be understood that the Cow Palace, in whatever future form, will not be a competitor with the Moscone centers of San Francisco, Atlanta, New York, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Orlando, Houston, or Dallas. It is deliberately to be for smaller-scale clientele, which necessarily means lost competitive efficiencies.

    • Re: Information

      Yes, I’ve looked at the schedule of events. The place is occupied 1-2 weekends a month, and vacant most weekdays. And I’d be willing to bet that none of the events fill either the buildings or the parking lot to capacity. So I maintain my opinion that the current incarnation of the Cow Palace is wasting more land than it’s putting to good use.

      And I don’t think it’s impossible to renovate the building or bring it up to code. I just don’t think they have the money to do so without finding a new revenue stream. Which is why the original plan of leasing the 13 acres of the west parking lot to the city would have made complete sense. But they both got stupid with greed, and now we’re in this all-or-nothing fight. Which sucks.

      The Cow Palace was once a competitor for big-name events. Over the years it has lost relevance, and thus now caters to the smaller events. But the fact that it still uses the land and buildings meant for larger events is another reason I’d love to see a smaller, more efficiently built iteration of the Cow Palace built on maybe 1/3 of the land, and the rest used for development. But unless we send Scroodge and his gang to visit both the venue and the city soon, I just don’t think that’s likely.

      • Re: Information

        Agreed, but there would have to be additional consideration for transit connections. I’m not convinced the 9 San Bruno is enough or best.

        Interestingly, the expensive Chinatown MUNI train connection now proposed includes connections to Moscone, Union Square, and the Caltrain Station (smart!).

  9. “Don’t fight to keep hold of the past.”

    With the people that is directed at, I assume the funny irony of that statement didn’t escape you. ;) *chuckle*

  10. I agree that the DF will find a new home if it needs to, along with the many other events that are held at the Cow Palace. Honestly, I’ve never liked the venue for reasons to do with ventillation, sound and the fact that even my friends with the most robust immune systems get sick by working there. That said, I think what gives me the bulshit vibe about this whole thing is that the CP is owned by the public, many many people from varying cross-sections of interest throughout the community use the place, and now it is part of a land-grab, so far as I can see. Hey that’s ours! Why are you selling it so that it can be lived on by a few people (who can afford housing in this area) and profitted from by even fewer? Something about this stinks is all I’m saying.

    • Something about this stinks is all I’m saying.

      What do you mean? The Cow Palace has always smelled like that. :-)

      See the above summary of the political mess. This is a great example of reasonable, win-win negotiations gone FUBAR.

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