SF supes committee recommends fixed seats for Castro Theatre

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 8, 2023
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A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee has approved amending the interior landmarking ordinance for the Castro Theatre to include the fixed orchestra seating. Photo: Courtesy Castro Theatre Conservancy<br>
A San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee has approved amending the interior landmarking ordinance for the Castro Theatre to include the fixed orchestra seating. Photo: Courtesy Castro Theatre Conservancy

With little fanfare and hardly any public comment, a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee on Monday advanced an amendment that would see the fixed orchestra seating remain in place at the Castro Theatre.

The amendment is to an interior landmarking ordinance that is expected to go to the Board of Supervisors May 16. The board has final approval over the landmark request, which was initially made by gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman last year.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission in February recommended the interior landmarking, but without specifying that the orchestra seating remain fixed. Hence, the amendment that was recommended May 8 and offered last month by District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston, a straight ally and vice chair of the land use committee. (The exterior of the Castro Theatre was designated a historic landmark in 1977.)

The committee's vote, should it be adopted by the full board, could be a blow to Another Planet Entertainment, which manages the historic movie palace and had sought to replace the orchestra seating with a motorized floor that would make both raked seating and tiered standing arrangements possible.

On behalf of APE, gay spokesperson David Perry stated, "This was no surprise."

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee forwarded the Castro Theatre interior landmarking ordinance — including an amendment that would landmark fixed, orchestra-style seating — to the whole board on the same 2-1 vote it preliminarily voted on last month.

Preston brought forth the fixed seating amendment April 17, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, in a major victory for the forces who seek to stop the changes APE wants to make to the theater.

Preston and straight ally board President Aaron Peskin, who represents District 3, voted in favor Monday; committee Chair District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, a straight ally, was opposed.

"I support landmarking the interior," Melgar said before the vote. "Unfortunately, I cannot support the amendment or the legislation as amended. We are not approving and we do not have the authority to approve the lease with APE or any other; this sets a precedent I don't want to support."

The vote brings the labyrinthine battle over the theater to its grandest stage; though as Mandelman, who represents the Castro, noted April 17, "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 opposed the amendment at the time.

Preston made similar remarks before Monday's vote.

"I don't think we are deciding in this committee or at the whole board whose plan goes forward and whose doesn't," Preston said, referring to dueling plans by APE and the Castro Theatre Conservancy, which issued its revised plan late last month. "There are ways either of these plans could work with the proposed landmarking."

Some speakers at the hearing derided the conservancy's plan, stating that it has no funding mechanism. The plan calls for the Nasser family, which owns the theater, to sell or lease it to the conservancy, which the Nasser family is not interested in doing, as the B.A.R. previously reported.

Long road

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.

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 the 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.

The hearing had five public comments; three were supportive of the amendment, one was opposed, and one was critical of the conservancy and the cultural district.

"We would ask you to move this on with the revised language we requested and thank you for adding that," Stephen Torres, one of the executive co-chairs of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, said during public comment. "There have been conversations, some hopeful in our estimation, in addressing some of the other concerns raised by Supervisor [Aaron] Peskin and Supervisor Mandelman in terms of trying to find a compromise, or alternatives."

Mike Murray, a gay Castro resident, called in during public comment to criticize the conservancy's plan.

"The cultural district and the conservancy are not engaging the community and their comments don't represent the community," Murray said. "This plan is not new. It is an old plan repackaged as a press release. It includes no funding. They have made no progress on their goal of raising $20-$40 million to restore the theater. The plan demands the owners sell their property to the conservancy or give them a 60-year lease without any money. The owners have said they are not interested in the offer."

On behalf of the cultural district, Torres told the B.A.R. that he approves of the committee's decision.

"We hope this illustrates to the board that drastic and irrevocable changes to the Castro Theatre are not necessary for either the theater or the community's future or vitality and the revised landmark language should be acceptable terms by which any vendor can operate beneficially and in good faith to our community's needs," he stated.

"We look forward to being in front of the full board and appreciate the thoughtful consideration of all the supervisors," Torres stated.

Mandelman and the conservancy did not respond to requests for comment.

Updated, 5/9/23: This article has been updated with response from APE and the Castro cultural district.

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