Editorial: APE has only itself to blame

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday April 19, 2023
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A Board of Supervisors' committee gave initial approval to an interior landmarking amendment that would see the orchestra seating at the Castro Theatre remain fixed. Photo: Rick Gerharter
A Board of Supervisors' committee gave initial approval to an interior landmarking amendment that would see the orchestra seating at the Castro Theatre remain fixed. Photo: Rick Gerharter

It looks like Another Planet Entertainment may be forced to keep the orchestra seating at the Castro Theatre after a Board of Supervisors committee this week agreed to an initial approval for an amendment that will give landmark status to the fixed seating in the movie palace. That's not what Another Planet wanted, and the fate of its management of the theater is uncertain. The concert promoter's proposed renovations called for a motorized contraption that would allow altering the movie theater-style seating for more standing room for concerts. That in itself was a last-minute concession that Another Planet made days before a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission in February to consider the interior landmarking proposal initiated by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman last year. The preservation panel recommended approval of the interior landmarking, but with the "presence of seating," which would have allowed Another Planet to more easily go ahead with its plans.

Now, with a second hearing before the supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee next week to give additional consideration to the amendment, which likely will be forwarded on to the full board on the same 2-1 vote that occurred Monday, Another Planet finds itself potentially constrained from making renovations it considers vital to managing a profitable Castro Theatre. While Another Planet has not said it will pack up and leave if it doesn't get what it wants, that outcome cannot be dismissed.

But the Berkeley-based company has only itself to blame for its current predicament. It has not been a good neighbor since its surprising announcement in January 2022 that it was taking over management of the theater, widely considered the jewel of the Castro LGBTQ neighborhood and beloved for more than 100 years. Another Planet quickly ran into a buzz saw of criticism from neighborhood groups, movie lovers, historians, and others, and never gained its footing. Listening to roughly two hours of public comment during the supervisors' committee hearing, it became obvious that those supporting Another Planet and those opposed cannot find common ground. Mandelman admitted as much at the outset of the meeting when he said that recent negotiations between Another Planet and the Castro Theatre Conservancy did not result in any agreement.

After Another Planet fumbled its 2022 announcement, which it acknowledged a month later, as the company did not proactively reach out to the groups that it needed to meet with most — those who had concerns about its plans or were opposed. Tina Aguirre, the manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said as much at the committee meeting. "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."

It was a year ago that we editorialized that Another Planet should be doing more to work with Castro businesses and other groups. At that time, many merchants also had reservations, but Another Planet has apparently assuaged their concerns: over 100 of them now support the company's plans, as was noted by speakers at the committee meeting. Many of them likely realized the obvious — that without an open Castro Theatre, the commercial corridor's recovery from the COVID pandemic would be even rockier than it has been. That, along with some high-profile closures like the LGBTQ restaurant and bar Harvey's in January, probably made many of them reconsider.

The thing to keep in mind, however, is this: Another Planet is a business that needs to make a profit. And it apparently is not above skirting the rules to do so. As Board of Supervisors President and land use committee member Aaron Peskin pointed out Monday, the company isn't even honoring the terms of its lease with the city for managing the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium 13 years later. It has not made all of the improvements it agreed to, Peskin said. While Another Planet did make about $500,000 in improvements, there are millions of dollars more in work that is outstanding, Peskin said. Given that, it's an open question whether Another Planet will spend the $15 million it has indicated it will cost to renovate the Castro Theatre. (In a statement released April 18, APE disputed Peskin's claims and said it has spent over $10.3 million on the auditorium.)

And therein lies the rub. The theater has been mostly dark since Another Planet took over, and before that it was closed for years because of the pandemic. Even now, however, cinema multiplexes are struggling to draw audiences and the Castro movie house would be no exception. Small business owners in the neighborhood — especially restaurants and bars — want the increased foot traffic that comes with a vibrant theater, which is not likely to be the case for years even if Another Planet remains as the operator. Meanwhile, the LGBTQ neighborhood struggles on, with storefront vacancies due to a number of reasons — greedy landlords, overwhelming city bureaucracy, etc.

The writing was on the wall for Another Planet at the April 3 land use committee meeting when District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston said he would seek the fixed seating amendment, and Peskin basically told the company to negotiate with stakeholders. The committee gave the company two weeks to reach some sort of compromise, and yet that did not happen. At this point, it almost seems too late for Another Planet to reach out and strike a deal that will make most people happy. Its hubris and arrogance have gotten in the way, and Castro residents can count on a mostly dark theater for the foreseeable future until that changes.

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