Castro Merchants group votes to conditionally endorse APE theater plans

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday April 6, 2023
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The Castro Merchants Association voted to endorse Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre at its April 6 meeting. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Castro Merchants Association voted to endorse Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre at its April 6 meeting. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The Castro Merchants Association voted Thursday to endorse Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre without demanding a contractual agreement with the concert promotion company.

The merchants did, however, vote that supporting the plan is dependent on gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's office accepting an economic impact report from APE, and APE completing another one if the first one is found unacceptable.

The decision was hammered out during an at-times tense membership meeting. It also came just days after San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin issued a powerful ultimatum, giving APE two weeks to come to a compromise acceptable to the community before the supervisors take up a proposal to landmark the historic movie house's interior, as the Bay Area Reporter reported.

The imbroglio over the theater began in January 2022, when APE — which runs the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium downtown — was announced as the new operators of the 101-year-old Castro Theatre.

APE wants to make significant changes to the theater's interior, including replacing the current fixed seating with a motorized floor that'd make both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible.

Some Castro neighborhood and LGBTQ and film groups — such as the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Conservancy — formed the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition in opposition to the proposed changes, which would allow the theater to sometimes operate as a concert venue.

APE has recently stated that the number of films shown at the theater will be shown about one-third of the time, which has dismayed moviegoers and many others.

On Monday, the supervisors' land use and transportation committee, which is where Peskin issued his warning, voted to continue the interior landmarking item for two weeks at the request of gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. He said the time would be used to attempt to forge a compromise between APE and its detractors.

In February, as the B.A.R. previously reported, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission approved recommending expanded interior landmarking for the Castro Theatre but stopped short of specifically stating the orchestra seats were part of that. Instead, the commission recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the "character defining features" for the orchestra level include the raked floor, aisles and "presence of seating." It did recommend landmark status for 1920s seats in the balcony. It was that recommendation the land use committee was considering April 3.

Those advocating for keeping the orchestra seats asked the historic preservation commission to further clarify the language in the proposed ordinance to more accurately restate the factual findings approved by the planning commission, but the commissioners declined to do so. At the land use committee meeting, numerous speakers advocated that the supervisors amend the preservation commission's determination with "fixed seating." District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, who is vice chair of the committee, said he's in favor of such an amendment.

After the merchant meeting, gay association President Terrance Alan said he'd never intended to stand in the way of APE, per se. He had expressed disappointment that the Castro Community Benefit District had been collecting signatures from businesses in support of APE's plans — without a binding, contractual agreement, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

APE has released a community benefits package, as the B.A.R. previously reported, but it is not binding.

"I want a process that is voted on by the members in the open member meeting we just had," Alan told the B.A.R. "I am disappointed the CBD joined Another Planet in jumping the gun by distributing the petition to merchants that was not worded carefully."

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the executive director of the CBD, told the B.A.R. in response that small businesses took it upon themselves to support APE.

"A Castro Community Benefit District board member and a small business owner in the Castro together collected signatures from Castro Merchants members and non-members on a petition to support Another Planet Entertainment's proposal to restore the Castro Theatre," she stated after the initial online publication of this report. "Because they know that small business owners have a difficult time spending hours at City Hall to provide public comment, the petition is being circulated to give individual small business owners a voice at the upcoming hearings. The petitions will be submitted at these hearings."

Alan said he would have preferred a contract.

Nonetheless, he said during the meeting he hopes the vote will "be a healing moment," and chided those laughing in the room.

The vote passed with two abstentions and one no vote: Joseph Titi of The Artist's Gallery, located at 4406-A 18th Street.

"It baffles me," Alan said after the vote. "But that's democracy."

David Perry, a gay man who's a spokesperson for APE, heralded the vote as a victory.

"Thank you to all the small businesses in the Castro and the Castro Merchants," he stated. "We are honored by your faith and look forward to restoring the Castro Theatre to its historic architectural glory and its historic place within the cultural life of the city including vibrant offerings for the film and LGBTQ+ communities."

Mandelman told the B.A.R. that "the merchants' feedback is important, and I think their support (even conditional) for the project will be significant for APE moving forward. I and my office continue to work with APE, community stakeholders and the mayor's office to try to address as many reasonable concerns about the project as we can." He did not answer a follow-up question as to whether his office would look at the economic report and decide if it's acceptable.

Tense discussion preceded vote

The art of political compromise has been compared to sausage-making, and Thursday's decision came after the merchants hammered out various concerns.

Mary Conde and Dan Serot appeared representing APE; Jen Reck, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University, appeared representing the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition.

Frank Tiecedes, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, challenged the APE representatives — saying that the company's promises should be followed up by a binding agreement.

"We want to know there's something we can do," if APE does not follow through, he said. "It's not because we don't trust you — it's because it's a business."

Conde said that since APE has submitted documents with the San Francisco Planning Commission, it is "a condition of our approval" to move forward with the renovations.

Reck cast doubt on that.

"City hearings are about the renovation and restoration of the theater," Reck said. "Are these going to be binding on the business community in terms of what you need?"

The initial motion, championed by Alan, included three prongs: the preparation of an economic impact report, a contractual agreement between the merchants and APE, and agreement with "APE's good-faith participation in negotiations convened by Supervisor Mandelman."

It became very clear it was the second item — the contract — that was the stickler.

Ray Connolly, co-owner of Eureka Sky on 17th Street, said there are many merchants who didn't want the second prong.

"These merchants are in support of APE investing $15 million," he said, referring to those who signed the CBD petition and APE's estimates of what it plans to spend renovating the theater. "Who is going to show up to renovate that theater?"

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who co-owns Cliff's Variety on Castro Street, moved to strike the second prong and amend the first to say that APE should submit an economic impact report — APE claims to have already conducted one — to Mandelman's office, which will judge whether it is acceptable.

If it is not acceptable to him "they will enter into negotiations with Supervisor Mandelman," Bennett proposed.

The third item was left as stated.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who's the executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board (a major coalition backer), told the B.A.R. after the meeting that "we support the Castro Merchants Association as a member of the coalition for what they are asking for in this resolution."

When asked about the contract question, Torres demurred.

"This is their membership, from our perspective," he said, "we think a contract makes sense."

Torres told the B.A.R. that the district sent a letter April 4 to APE and the Nasser family (which owns the theater) asking for a meeting.

"We hope that you understand the gravity of this situation and the strong message which the supervisors have conveyed to you in support of our community and this legacy world heritage site," the letter states. "We strongly urge you to resume official engagement with the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District in substantive and binding ways."

Terry Beswick, a gay man on the merchants' board, told the B.A.R. after the initial online publication of this report that "we want the theater open and activated as soon and as much as possible."

"We're hopeful that the negotiations will lead to substantive community partnerships with film and LGBTQ programming on all those dark days," he said.

Updated, 4/6/23: This article has been updated with comments from the Castro CBD and Terry Beswick.

Updated, 4/11/23: This article has been updated with a comment from Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

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