SF supervisors' committee backs fixed seating at Castro Theatre on divided vote

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 17, 2023
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A Board of Supervisors committee voted 2-1 Monday for an amendment that would preserve fixed orchestra seating at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
A Board of Supervisors committee voted 2-1 Monday for an amendment that would preserve fixed orchestra seating at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee voted 2-1 April 17 in favor of an amendment to landmark the fixed orchestra seating in the Castro Theatre.

The amendment, offered by District 5 Supervisor and committee vice chair Dean Preston, adds "fixed theatrical seating configured in movie palace style" at the Castro Theatre. The committee — which consists of Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, Preston, and chair District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar — has to vote on the expanded interior landmarking and the amendment once more, next Monday.

The matter of interior landmarking for the Castro Theatre will then go to the full Board of Supervisors, which makes the final decision.

It is largely what opponents of Another Planet have wanted since the Historic Preservation Commission in February recommended interior landmarking of the movie palace but only with the "presence of seating."

Many supporters of Another Planet and the Castro Theatre Conservancy, which lobbied for the fixed seating amendment, spoke during public comment.

The vote came two weeks after Peskin issued an ultimatum to theater operator Another Planet Entertainment to come to an agreement with the community. As gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman explained at the meeting's outset, no agreement has materialized.

"I am, unfortunately, sad to report we have not had luck in those negotiations," Mandelman stated. "Although there were moments in the last several weeks, both sides in my view have done things and taken positions that ensure there would not be one at least not for now."

It isn't clear if the amendment — made to the larger landmarking recommendation of the theater's interior that was approved by the Historic Preservation Commission — will have an impact on APE's ability to radically change the seating configuration.

"Ultimately even if made, it is not clear the amendment would prevent the city approving or APE not moving forward with their plans for the theater," Mandelman said, adding that the amendment would be a "symbolic" gesture.

Still, that doesn't make it the gesture the committee should send, Mandelman advised.

"I regret that the [Castro Theatre] conservancy and APE have not been able to make an agreement ensuring the conservancy a role in the continued showing of film at the theater," Mandelman said. "Such a commitment would dramatically reduce the likelihood of APE's plans being bogged down in litigation, which is not my desire."

Still, "I do not believe this board should second guess or alter the work of planning staff," he added, referring to the planning department's report prepared for the Historic Preservation Commission.

A year of controversy

The imbroglio over the theater began in January 2022, when Another Planet — which runs the Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium near San Francisco's Civic Center, and the Fox Theatre in Oakland — 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 orchestra seating with a motorized floor that'd make both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible.

Some Castro neighborhood, 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.

At issue at Monday's hearing was whether the supervisors should change the Historic Preservation Commission's recommended interior landmarking to give further protection to the current seats — protection that had been argued could effectively halt APE's plans. Many speakers operated under this assumption, with commenters talking as though the committee's decision was on the appropriateness of APE's plans per se. (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

As is a mainstay of hearings on the theater, a passionate hourslong period of public comment preceded the vote (though this time speakers were limited to one minute). All told, of those who appeared in person, 43 spoke broadly in favor of APE's plans or against the amendment and 24 spoke broadly opposed to APE's plans or in favor of the amendment. One person's comments were directed at the Nasser family, which owns the theater, blaming them for the state of disrepair. Another's was solely to promote his journalistic work.

Of those who called in, 32 were in favor of APE's plans or against the amendment and 27 were against or in favor of the amendment.

Those in favor of the changes argued APE may be the only hope for the theater. Jim Abrams, the attorney for the Nasser family, said outright that if the deal between the Nassers and APE can't work out it would "likely result in the permanent closure of the theater."

Others agreed.

"Locking this building into a specific use to support a dying movie theater industry is chaos," said Dave Karraker, a gay man who co-owns MX3 Fitness on Market Street and is a past co-president of the Castro Merchants Association. "If you do this, and I work blocks away, I can guarantee you the Nasser family will board it up ... Let it evolve with the young diverse multicultural community that is the future of the Castro."

Keith Hall, who said he was LGBTQ, portrayed those opposed to APE as being loud but not representing what most people think.

"It [the amendment] does not have broad support in the community and certainly not among the younger members, the generation who will inherit this glorious building," Hall said. "I propose we have a broader vision of what this place can be. Los Angeles has many glorious movie palaces that can be used for other events and I propose we dream bigger about that this place can be and be more inclusive."

David Perry, a gay man who's a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, told the B.A.R. after the vote that the decision was not representative of what the community wants.

"It is perplexing that after public comment of which three quarters of the speakers supported Another Planet, two members of the Board of Supervisors with no direct experience of the Castro neighborhood overrode fact, majority opinion and the economics of 2023 to hobble a private business from investing $15 million into a struggling community," he stated.

Those who spoke in favor of the amendment argued APE was not negotiating in good faith and that either the theater can still be profitable or that profit shouldn't be the motivating factor in preserving a place of such rich cultural importance.

Tina Aguirre, executive director of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, was upset that APE stopped engaging with the district on the subject.

"We remain very disappointed APE has not reached out directly to me as the lead staff member of the organization," Aguirre said. "This represents erasure of a legislative body, the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and myself, as a transgender person of color. I appreciate what you are moving today [the amendment] and urge you to move it forward."

William Lewis said that as a young gay person, it's important the patrimony of the past be handed on to future generations.

"There are young people, young gay people like me to whom it's very important to have this landmark intact the way it is now," Lewis said. "If it seems like we're being inflexible it's because we've seen this movie before, we know where it is going and we don't want to let something else go."

After public comment, Peskin revealed that he was personally involved in the negotiations, which had been facilitated by Mandelman. He said that "APE has frankly stonewalled" and bemoaned the lack of a privately-enforceable agreement considering that APE has not finished renovations to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, owned by the City and County of San Francisco, which it agreed to 13 years ago.

"I think this behavior over the last 13 years is a reasonable indicator of future behavior," Peskin said, adding that APE did not treat the two weeks as an opportunity for serious engagement with the concerns of those opposed to its plans, taking it as "a PR and marketing exercise rather than an exercise in community engagement over a beloved icon."

Melgar, a former planning commissioner, argued that be that as it may, "I don't see putting, making the seats also, adding that to the historic preservation commission's standing of what is going on in the theater, that that's the cure for this.

"I think we all wish life before the [COVID] pandemic could continue. One of the things that've been affected, besides going to work in an office, has been the moviegoing experience — not just in San Francisco but all over the world," Melgar said. "I will not support the amendment of Supervisor Preston because we need to be as flexible as possible so a business enterprise can continue on that commercial corridor. It is time right now to be supporting ways to provide the most flexibility and the widest array of programming."

San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin makes a point during the board's land use committee meeting April 17. Photo by Screengrab viaSFGovTV  

Nonetheless, Melgar said to Peskin that "I, like you, would like to see some [memorandum of understanding] or agreement to provide film on a consistent regular basis."

Preston said that he didn't see the logic in being in favor of interior landmarking but being against the amendment. The current language only discusses the "presence of seating."

"I would urge Another Planet and folks organizing around this issue to recognize we have the same goal here and it's possible to have this amendment, carry out the intent of the HPC and ensure the success of the Castro Theatre," Preston said, referring to the Historic Preservation Commission.

The vote was then taken with Peskin and Preston voting for the amendment and Melgar voting against, with another vote moving to bring the topic up again next week, since it is substantive enough of an amendment to require a second vote before it goes before the whole board. That passed unanimously.

Terrance Alan, a gay man who is the current president of the Castro Merchants Association — which voted to endorse APE's plans with conditions (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?324296) — told the B.A.R. he does not have comment on the vote but that he is "excited about the unintended consequence of asking the question, fixed seats or not."

"It showed the strength of our community," Alan said. "We may seem divided on the 'how,' but unbreakable we stand for the 'what.' A love of the Castro that will prevail after the division is healed. I can hardly wait to see what it looks like."

Although the merchants group's endorsement was reticent, several public commenters read aloud the names of 104 businesses in the area that do support Another Planet's plans.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is on the cultural district's board of directors, spoke on the district's behalf to the B.A.R. after the vote.

"We appreciate the outpouring of community support on keeping this a community asset and we also appreciate Supervisor Mandelman with having responded to our request to expand the landmarking and to Supervisor[s] Preston and Peskin for adding this important, definitive language," Torres said. "They've [APE] continued not to engage with the Castro cultural district and not make enforceable commitments and it seems they've treated the city no differently, regarding the Bill Graham Civic."

In a statement on the Bill Graham allegations, Perry stated APE has spent over $10.3 million on the auditorium, including $7 million in capital improvements to the facility, and $3.3 million in repairs and maintenance. Past and present agreements, he said, "were fully approved and reviewed by the Board of Supervisors."

Mandelman thanked Peskin, Preston and Melgar for listening — but reminded everyone that they don't have the last say.

"I am grateful that my colleagues on the committee took the time to hear from the public over two meetings and seriously grapple with the competing visions for the future of the theater," Mandelman stated after the vote. "Plainly the majority reached a different conclusion than I have, and we will continue the conversation at the full board."

Updated, 4/18/23: This article has been updated with comments from Another Planet and Supervisor Mandelman.

Updated, 4/19/23: This article has been updated with a statement from APE.

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