SF supervisors' committee delays vote on Castro Theatre landmarking for 2 weeks

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 24, 2023
Share this Post:
People wore T-shirts that spelled out "Save the Seats" at an August 2022 town hall at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter
People wore T-shirts that spelled out "Save the Seats" at an August 2022 town hall at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The fate of interior landmarking at the Castro Theatre won't be decided by the full Board of Supervisors just yet, after the Land Use and Transportation Committee voted 3-0 to wait two more weeks before giving its final stamp of approval to amend the interior landmarking ordinance.

The matter will be taken up again by the committee Monday, May 8.

The vote by the supervisors' land use and transportation committee was the second on the topic in as many weeks. Before the panel was the question of whether to confirm its 2-1 vote April 24 recommending fixed seating in the orchestra because the amendment requiring the fixed orchestra seating was a substantive one, as determined by the city attorney's office.

But the panel deferred that vote.

Stephen Torres, a queer man who is executive co-chair of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, asked that consideration of this second vote be delayed two weeks as the two sides battling for the theater's future work on reaching a compromise.

"With all the moving pieces in play, I think all parties would benefit from the additional breathing room that affords," Torres said.

At least two callers criticized committee member and board President Aaron Peskin's decision to wait until after public comment was finished April 17 to drop the bombshell that Castro Theatre operator Another Planet Entertainment has not finished renovations to the city-owned Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which it also manages, 13 years after it promised to do so.

Peskin did not say anything after public comment.

APE has subsequently stated that it has spent over $10 million on the civic auditorium and recently secured the permit to begin renovations on Polk Hall, a smaller venue inside the auditorium, as the B.A.R. reported.

The amendment the supervisors' committee needs to vote on a second time was offered during its April 17 meeting by District 5 Supervisor and committee vice chair Dean Preston, a straight ally, as the B.A.R. noted last week.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman spoke at that meeting against making the amendment, saying, "I do not believe this board should second guess or alter the work of planning staff" while bemoaning that "both sides in my view have done things and taken positions that ensure there would not be" an agreement.

"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.

Nonetheless, Preston pushed forward. Committee Chair District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, a straight ally, voted against the amendment, saying that "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."

The amendment — which replaces the term "presence of seating" in the original resolution approved by the historic preservation commission with "fixed theatrical seating configured in movie palace style" — is largely what opponents of Another Planet have wanted.

Mandelman was not present at the committee's April 24 meeting, and public comments were limited to one minute. Far fewer people spoke than during previous hearings on the movie palace.

Of those who appeared in person Monday, two spoke in favor of the amendment, two were against, and one spoke about his concerns over the committee's conduct.

Ralph Hibbs, a gay man who lives in the Castro and is on the Castro Community Benefit District's retail committee, spoke against the amendment, saying "all buildings must change over time."

"It [the amendment] puts a burden on the theater by preventing anyone from adding HVAC in the future," Hibbs said. "Without healthy air in the theater the seats are worthless. Nobody can sit in a theater that has health risks."

Of those who spoke via telephone, three spoke in favor of the amendment, two against the amendment, and one spoke of his concerns about Peskin's Bill Graham auditorium reveal.

Preston said after the public comment period ended that "I do think — I hope — everyone can agree that hopefully a negotiated solution of some kind would be best to bring the community together. I would like to suggest, and to move, that we continue this item for two weeks."

All three members of the panel, including Melgar, voted for the continuance.

Stephen Torres of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District spoke at Monday's Board of Supervisors' committee hearing. Photo: Screengrab via SFGovTV  

Torres told the B.A.R. after the meeting that "we are asking for the continuance because we are having ongoing discussions we think will be fruitful and Supervisor Mandelman has indicated he wants to meet with our coalition leadership and we think that's important in these two weeks."

"It felt like the right thing to ask for to ensure there was adequate breathing room for all parties concerned," he continued. "We remain hopeful APE will see that there is a way of running this theater in a benefit to both them and the community while retaining these important features, and we feel people like former Supervisors Alioto-Pier and Ammiano have also supported this in terms of basic accessibility."

Torres was referring to a guest opinion that ran on the B.A.R.'s website Monday by former supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, a disability advocate, and gay former supervisor and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano that argued the fight over the theater is "about access for disabled people, generational access, family access, access for people with lower incomes, and beyond."

One caller to Monday's meeting, who did not identify themself, brought up the opinion piece.

APE, Mandelman, the Castro Theatre Conservancy and the CBD (which circulated a petition among merchants in favor of APE) did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The Castro Merchants Association declined a request for comment when asked.

The imbroglio over the theater began in January 2022, when APE — 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 operator 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.

Other groups have voiced support for APE's plans, such as the city's LGBTQ film festival Frameline, which will screen 50 films at the Castro Theatre this June. More than 100 businesses have also signed a petition in support of APE's proposal.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.