2 Castro business groups spar over theater as hearings near

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday March 30, 2023
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The Castro Community Benefit District has been circulating a petition among businesses in the LGBTQ neighborhood seeking support for Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The Castro Community Benefit District has been circulating a petition among businesses in the LGBTQ neighborhood seeking support for Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

The Castro Community Benefit District is circulating a petition to neighborhood business owners asking them to support Another Planet Entertainment's plans for the Castro Theatre ahead of crucial city hearings in April.

Several members of the Castro Merchants Association are not pleased — the group has not taken a position — and merchants' member Patrick Batt, a gay man who is proprietor of AutoErotica on 18th Street, described it as "muscling in" on the association's role in the community.

Batt, a former Castro Merchants president, told the Bay Area Reporter that last Friday someone from the CBD, whose name he couldn't remember, came to him at his store asking him to sign on.

"Unfortunately, I didn't take a look at the petition," Batt said. "He read my face quickly and said, 'apparently you have issues.' I said, 'yeah,' and I said the Castro Merchants have unanswered questions and he said 'we want to present this to whatever committee is meeting on the 13th of April.'"

The city's historic preservation and planning commissions will take up hearings on a certificate of appropriateness on APE's plans to make significant changes to the theater's interior on that date. Another hearing, before the Board of Supervisors' land use committee, is set for Monday, April 3. That meeting is to consider expanding the landmark status of the theater to include the interior. (The exterior was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

Last month, 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.

Final approval for the landmark status rests with the Board of Supervisors.

Those advocating 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 commission, but the commissioners declined to do so.

At the supervisors' land use committee hearing, supporters of the theater are expected to ask that the panel clarify language in the ordinance, shifting it from describing "the presence of seating" to "fixed theatrical seating configured in movie-palace style," according to a set of talking points sent by the Castro Theatre Coalition March 30.

The coalition is also expected to request that the joint April 13 meeting of the historic preservation and planning commissions be postponed until after the Board of Supervisors has made its final determination on the landmark issue and it's had time to be adopted into law, the email states.

CBD leader responds

Regarding the CBD's campaign, Batt said the unnamed person, who said he was a member of the CBD's board, "said he had 49 signatures," which Batt did not believe.

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who's the executive director of the CBD, confirmed the signature-gathering campaign to the B.A.R.

"We're asking [business owners] if they are aware of the issues, how they feel about it and if they'd be willing to sign a petition to support Another Planet," she said.

When asked how many businesses have signed on, Aiello demurred.

"I'm not in charge of that so I'm not keeping track of how many businesses," she said.

When asked who is in charge, Aiello said, "There's a variety of people who are working on this project. We're not at liberty to say how many businesses."

She declined to say who is working on the project.

"We're just trying to understand how the individual merchants feel about the issue and get an understanding and working with the merchants to do that, so I'm confused," she said, when asked about opposition to the initiative.

Merchants group has issues

Terrance Alan, a gay man who's president of the merchant's group, said that "the real issue" is that Another Planet won't agree contractually with what it promised in its community benefits package. Rather, the document serves as a pledge, Alan believes.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, APE's community benefit package states it will work with local restaurants and offer "meaningful business opportunities on all activities associated with the theatre and its programming."

"Event concessions will feature various menu items from a wide array of Castro restaurants, as well as hiring these local restaurants to provide catering services to performers and their staff," the document states. "Other aspects of APE's internal operations will include utilizing local businesses for theatre maintenance, painting, electrical, janitorial, and hospitality needs in their efforts to repair the dilapidated conditions of the theatre."

But Alan isn't convinced.

"They have successfully shuttered the theater for a year to show how much damage can be done, and merchants are hurting because of that," Alan said, referring to Another Planet taking over theater management in January 2022. "We should not sign on to their empty promises without proof just because we've been punished."

For its part, Another Planet is pleased with any support, gay spokesperson David Perry said.

"Another Planet and the people who love the Castro Theatre are supportive of anyone who wants to support our plans to revitalize the theater," he told the B.A.R. "The renovation plans have come with a lot of input from the film community. We are thrilled with support."

At issue with many critics is Another Planet's desire to remove the raked orchestra seating. APE previously announced a revised seating plan for the theater that would preserve the raked element for film events. It includes a motorized floor that makes both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible, according to an announcement on the theater's Facebook page.

Alan told the B.A.R. that the merchants will "take up this question" of the theater at its forthcoming April 6 membership meeting.

"We will focus on the question of the Castro Theatre, about the Castro Theatre, present all sides and call for a vote of the membership," Alan said. "Until that happens the merchants do not have a position, as it would be unfair to create such a statement without having the membership vote."

The merchants association, as the B.A.R. previously reported, (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?319553) declined to endorse Another Planet's plans last October. The discussion of the letter at the merchants' meeting touched off a lengthy discourse of the perceived shortcomings of Another Planet and questions about its potential impact on the neighborhood.

Aiello said the CBD is not trying to speak for the merchants' group.

"Not every merchant is a member of the merchants association, so to really have an understanding as to how all the individual merchants feel about this - and who are interested - is to give everybody a voice," she said.

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