SF small business panel tables resolution on Castro Theatre

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday August 23, 2022
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The San Francisco Small Business Commission tabled a resolution in support of Another Planet Entertainment's renovation plans for the Castro Theater, stating that more community support is needed. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The San Francisco Small Business Commission tabled a resolution in support of Another Planet Entertainment's renovation plans for the Castro Theater, stating that more community support is needed. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The San Francisco Small Business Commission got an earful of Castro Theatre controversy Monday night as it entertained — but ultimately tabled — a resolution in support of the renovation plans for the historic movie palace. A senior executive from Another Planet Entertainment also publicly acknowledged for the first time that the company was not prepared for the community backlash after it took over management of the theater.

Six of the commission's seven members heard public comment about APE's renovation plans for the century-old theater. For several commissioners, it was the first they had really heard about the conflicts surrounding the proposed changes since APE took over management of the theater in January.

At issue is APE's submission to the San Francisco Planning Department that would see the complete removal of the current banked seating on the main floor, designed to allow full line of sight for clear viewing of the theater's movie screen. That would be replaced with three platforms, upon which temporary seats could be placed when movies were shown. Notably, for concertgoers, the platforms would remain open, allowing patrons to stand and dance as they watch the live performance on stage.

The commission discussed a "Resolution in Support of Another Planet Entertainment." The company's plans for renovating the cinema have been dogged by controversy since they became public in March, and commissioners heard much more about it than they might have expected. What they gleaned, however, was enough to convince them to table the resolution, 6-0.

There was a great deal of confusion as to why the commission was even entertaining the resolution, as several members of the panel, as well as the public, stated themselves. There was also criticism from a few speakers who took APE to task for not mentioning at the August 11 town hall at the Castro Theatre that the Small Business Commission would agendize the resolution for its August 22 meeting.

"I still don't understand why this is in front of our commission right now," said Commissioner William Ortiz-Cartagena, following 90 minutes of comments from the public.

Commission President Sharky Laguana took responsibility for the resolution, explaining to attendees, "I'm going to take ownership of why this is on our agenda. This particular building has a particularly large impact on the small business community in the Castro, which had been suffering even before the pandemic."

Thirty-seven percent of storefronts in the neighborhood are currently vacant, he said, and sales tax revenue has declined by 50%.

Laguana told fellow commissioners he wanted to have a better understanding of the debate surrounding APE's plans. Without a doubt, the commission president and his fellow commissioners certainly learned just how controversial the matter is to some Castro residents, as well film aficionados and warrens of LGBTQ culture.

It also prompted an admission from APE Vice President of Business Affairs Dan Serot — probably for the first time from any APE executive — that the concert promoter was really not prepared for the backlash from the public once it announced its takeover of management of the theater.

"Unfortunately for us, we didn't look at this as a community center," Serot told commissioners, but, instead, as a business venture.

Laguana spoke encouragingly to the APE executives, stressing that a lot hinged upon the company's success.

"We need you to be successful," he said. "We need it to be here for hopefully hundreds of years in the future."

But, Laguana emphasized, "I'd like to see a bridge to the community and some real engagement with the community on these concerns."

In addition to comments from Mary Conde, senior vice president at APE, about the sheer scope of the renovation, and Assistant General Manager Casey Lowdermilk, commissioners heard from about 20 members of the public, all but one or two of whom was critical of APE, and who urged the commission to vote no on the resolution.

Queer public historian Gerard Koskovich expressed concern about what impact the changes in programming at the movie house might have on the Castro community itself. When he hears APE talking about "a new demographic," he said, it means straight customers, which will have a huge impact on the local culture.

Gay activist Michael Petrelis loudly urged the commissioners to vote against the resolution.

Dave Karraker, co-president of the Castro Merchants Association and owner of MX3 Fitness, called in to urge commissioners to "not make this an all or nothing proposition." Castro business owners, he said, were excited about the possibility of a younger demographic coming into the neighborhood.

"I want you to understand this is not about a single business or building," Karraker said. "It's about all the businesses in the Castro. It will help these businesses survive. The Castro needs the Castro Theatre to be successful."

Commissioners, too, expressed their concerns, particularly about what they saw as a lack of outreach on the part of APE to the public.

"I would like to see more community support before we make a decision on this today," said Commissioner Tiffany Carter.

"We really need to work toward a meeting of the minds," agreed Laguana. "Turn down the toxicity of the rhetoric and commentary and work together to find a solution everyone can get behind."

Upcoming meetings

Regarding future meetings on APE's plans, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission is set to hear the matter Wednesday, October 5, on the issue of appropriateness, actual renovations, and zoning amendments. The panel will also hear gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman's proposal to expand upon the theater's landmark designation. The theater is already a city landmark but, earlier this year, Mandelman sought to expand that designation to the interior of the building, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

The Planning Commission will hold a hearing Thursday, October 6, on proposed floor-by-floor zoning changes that would allow APE to bring in live entertainment.

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