Hearings on Castro Theatre landmarking postponed

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday December 6, 2022
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San Francisco historic and planning commissions have postponed hearings on the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
San Francisco historic and planning commissions have postponed hearings on the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

A push to postpone a hearing on proposed landmark designation for the Castro Theatre has opponents on guard. Meanwhile, the planning commission has also moved up the date for its hearing on proposed renovations to the movie palace.

On Wednesday, December 7, the Historic Preservation Commission was expected to postpone hearings on the landmark designation of both the exterior and interior of the century-old movie palace to February 1, with a subsequent hearing for a conditional use authorization on March 15. The Planning Commission is scheduled to take it up the following day, on March 16. The hearings have already been postponed once before.

The request to continue the historic preservation commission hearing, according to Jackie Thornhill, an aide to gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, came from the Nasser family which built the historic theater and has owned the it for the past 100 years.

The Nasser family was not available to comment.

David Perry, spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, which manages the cinema, told the Bay Area Reporter he was confident the rescheduled hearings would go on as planned.

"We have every confidence that the new schedule of hearings will take place and have every hope and confidence that people will understand that the group most committed to saving the Castro is Another Planet," Perry said, "and hope that people will understand that our plan is the best way to sustain the Castro Theatre for this generation, and the next generation of filmgoers, members of the LGBT community, and everyone who appreciates this iconic film venue."

The landmarking proposal before the historic preservation commission would extend the theater's current landmark status to the interior of the structure as, at the moment, it only addresses the facade. In 1976, the exterior of the building designed by prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger was designated San Francisco Historic Landmark #100.

If approved by the historic preservation commission, the landmark ordinance would go to the Board of Supervisors for final approval. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in May to start the process to enhance the landmark status, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Mandelman "initiated the expansion of the theater's landmark designation because it is just good historic preservation practice given that the existing landmark designation and analysis is dated and doesn't address the interior of the building to the same extent such a designation likely would if initiated today," Thornhill wrote in an email to the B.A.R.

Mandelman told the B.A.R., in a December 5 text from Sacramento, that he understands "there may be some productive conversations between the property owner and other parties, and I am open to an additional brief delay to allow the parties to try and reach a mutually agreeable path forward that will respect and honor the past and future of the theater."

Not everyone is as optimistic as the supervisor seems to be, however. Suspicion about proposed renovations for the theater have run high since Another Planet, a Berkeley-based concert promotion company, assumed management of the cinema back in January. The company submitted its proposed renovations to the San Francisco Planning Department less than two months later, raising both concerns and opposition to its desire to remove the movie house's banked seating in favor of level platforms that could hold both removable seats for movie viewing and standing audiences for live music performances.

Critics, such as Peter Pastreich, executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, have called the historic orchestra seating "essential to preserving the film-going experience."

Mandelman's support of the continuance has raised even further concerns for those opposed to the renovations.

"I wrote to the supervisors asking them not to delay the determination — as did the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Stakeholders Coalition," wrote queer historian Gerard Koskovich in an email to the B.A.R. "We received no response or acknowledgment."

Cultural district weighs in

Another letter from Jen Reck and Jesse Oliver Sanford, co-chairs of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District's Land Use Committee and dated November 29, asked Diane Matsuda, president of the Historic Preservation Commission, for a meeting to discuss "the landmark designation update process for the Castro Theatre."

Saying they disagreed with the proposal to delay the hearings, Reck and Sanford wrote, "We are concerned that the extension could foreshadow an attempt to undermine support for the landmark update and would demonstrate favor to the owners and/or management of the business at the expense of consideration for the building's historic integrity."

The letter continued: "The public has already expressed clear support of extending landmark designation to include the theatre's interior, including the raked floor and fixed seating."

Replying a couple of days later, Matsuda wrote that she'd happily meet with Reck and Sanford but added, "please be informed that we will be supporting Supervisor Mandelman's request to continue the matter. As a courtesy, the HPC honors the request of Supervisors, particularly when they are the initiator of an enhanced landmark designation."

Stephen Torres, a queer man and executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, noted in a phone interview with the B.A.R. that "continuing the process is no less anxiety driving."

The delays in the hearings have already had an impact on programming at the theater, he said, and the December line-up, while still including favorites such as the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus' Christmas show, is lighter than it has been in the past.

"Traditionally the theater is working at full tilt in December," Torres observed. That the theater has been kept closed longer and more often than in previous years has had an effect on the community both culturally and economically. It's important that people make their voices heard at the December 7 hearing, he said.

"I would like community members to know they should absolutely show up to the hearing or call in," said Torres.

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