Peskin issues ultimatum to Another Planet on Castro Theatre

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 3, 2023
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A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee continued its discussion on landmarking the interior of the Castro Theatre for two weeks. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee continued its discussion on landmarking the interior of the Castro Theatre for two weeks. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin handed down a powerful ultimatum to Another Planet Entertainment at a committee meeting Monday, saying that the Castro Theatre operator has two weeks to compromise with the community.

"I have to say [APE CEO] Mr. [Gregg] Perloff: you got to walk the walk and talk the talk a little bit faster here," said Peskin, a straight ally who represents much of downtown on the board. "You can show the community more, sooner, and if you don't, don't be surprised. APE walked into this like the 300 pound gorilla and that's why you haven't gotten anything finished yet."

Peskin's remarks came just before the supervisors' land use and transportation committee, on which he sits, voted to push consideration of the historic preservation commission's recommended updated interior landmarking of the movie palace back two weeks.

The 2-0 vote (chair District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar had left by then) to push back consideration was made on the advice of gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Mandelman said he is "hopeful that we can get to the win-win-win I have described elsewhere, but we're not there yet," and that two more weeks of negotiations could make the difference.

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, 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 could effectively halt APE's plans. (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

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.

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 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 said he's in favor of such an amendment.

APE told the Bay Area Reporter for a recent report that it will commit to having at least one-third of the theater's programming remain film but that "daily film screenings are not going to happen again."

Peskin seemed to target this in his remarks.

"This is not a business model where the venue can be open every day. The theater is going to be dark about half a year," he said. "I don't see any reason why we can't have our cake and eat it too and run the joint as a film operation with rich LGBT programming that 180 days."

Otherwise, the supervisors may come to a decision APE wouldn't like, Peskin said.

"How about, in the intervening two weeks ... you guys work out the terms and then we can get back into the issue around the seats," Peskin said. "I don't know how much it costs to run a movie theater but I don't think it's that expensive and I don't think it has to be leased out to parties for $6,000-$10,000 a day.

"Don't be yelling at me when this whole deal tanks," Peskin wryly added. "Just saying."

Mandelman told the B.A.R. that since the issue of the historic preservation commission's updated interior landmarking will be taken up by the committee on April 17, the mega-hearing of the planning and historic preservation commissions on the appropriateness of APE's plans will have to wait till May 18. (It had been set for April 13.)

"I think it was a sensible move and gives us a couple more weeks to work with the parties," Mandelman stated when asked about the two-week delay.

In fact, during his opening remarks, Mandelman, who is not on the committee but was invited because the theater is in his district, indicated he wanted a two-week continuance.

David Perry, a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, stated to the B.A.R. that "our continued thoughtful and cordial discussions with the leadership of the Castro Conservancy have led to a better plan. Today's continuance gives us additional time to work with them, and with everyone, who truly understands what it will take to save the Castro for future generations."

"Another Planet shares that passion, and is why we are endeavoring so hard to truly save the Castro Theatre and everything it represents, especially for the LGBTQ and film communities," Perry stated. "We were encouraged today to hear the growing support for, and true understanding of those plans, which we encourage everyone to view on the Castro website."

Preston, who is vice chair of the committee, offered to amend the historic preservation commission's proposed interior landmarking's reference to the "presence of seating" to "fixed theatrical seating configured in movie palace style," as the groups opposed to APE's plans requested.

At the meeting's outset Preston said he could proffer the amendment that day or in two weeks. At the end, however, he said, "The [San Francisco] city attorney's office requires additional time and the amendment that's proposed may also require amendments to the findings in the ordinance, so it will not be able to be introduced 'till the next meeting, so in deference to the city attorney and the ongoing process Supervisor Mandelman mentioned, formal amendments will wait till this comes back in two weeks."

Stephen Torres, a queer man who's the executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District board, told the B.A.R. that "we are grateful to Supervisor Preston's proposed amendment of the draft language retaining fixed theatrical seating and the land use committee members and Supervisor Mandelman's commitment to due process and for taking seriously the findings of the District and our collaborative historians whereas APE has not and has continued evade substantive community engagement."

Peter Pastreich, a straight ally who's the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, told the B.A.R. that the conservancy is "happy with the outcome of today's land use and transportation committee meeting."

"President Peskin and Supervisor Preston both expressed the understanding that the issue at hand is greater than saving the seats," Pastreich stated. "With the continuance, it was made clear that the Castro Theatre is a vital community asset, and that Another Planet Entertainment has the opportunity to act now and work with the community to find a compromise that ensures the theater does not lose the vibrancy for which it is known."

During the meeting, community members spoke in support of amending the historic preservation commission's recommended interior landmarking to include the fixed seating and raked floor.

"I request the committee clarify the draft landmark legislation for the Castro Theatre. In place of the phrase 'presence of seating' the ordinance should state 'fixed theatrical seating configured in movie palace style,'" queer public historian Gerard Koskovich said during the hearing. "The landmark designation fact sheet itself ... identifies movie palace seating as a defining characteristic. ... and yet the draft does not properly identify this finding. They are intrinsic to the form of the auditorium space as the auditorium of a movie palace."

Terrance Alan, a gay man who's the president of the Castro Merchants Association, said that the city economics experts should find out the impact of APE's plans on the merchant community, which he said has been badly hurt by the fact that the theater has been closed most days this year — and in the past three years due to the COVID pandemic.

"We have for decades relied on the Castro Theatre. What APE is saying is they will bring lots of people to the neighborhood, and if you evaluate their business plan they will bring a lot of people from 8 [p.m.] to midnight. Will that benefit the merchants community? I'm not sure," Alan said. "Does APE's plan work or does APE's plan not work? I'm not going to predict the future but I wanna hear what they [the office of economic analysis] have to say. The seats have become a bludgeon because APE is such a bully."

Community voices were not all opposed to APE's plans, though. As the B.A.R. reported last week the Castro Community Benefit District has been passing around a petition asking business owners to sign on to support APE's plans, though the merchant's association. CBD officials reiterated that during public comment at the hearing.

Andrea Aiello, a lesbian who is the CBD's executive director, said, "I'd like to express our strong support for Another Planet Entertainment's proposal. This is critical. They need the flexibility to recoup the $15+ million to renovate the theater. Of that $15 [million], $7 million is going to improving the film experience. They've committed their money to restoring the Castro to its original glory and to keeping films. They have to flatten the floor to put the HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] system in and in this day and age they need fresh air, they need circulation."

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