SF commissions OK APE's plans for Castro Theatre

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday June 15, 2023
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The San Francisco planning and historic preservation commissions paved the way for Another Planet Entertainment to proceed with its renovations to the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski
The San Francisco planning and historic preservation commissions paved the way for Another Planet Entertainment to proceed with its renovations to the Castro Theatre. Photo: Scott Wazlowski

San Francisco's historic preservation and planning commissions approved measures Thursday that pave the way for Another Planet Entertainment's plans to make major changes to the Castro Theatre.

The move came two days after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave final approval, on an 8-3 vote, to landmark the theater's interior without including the fixed, orchestra-style seating in the ordinance. APE wants to remove the fixed seating to make way for seating arrangements that can be moved in and out of the venue.

The proposed amendment for fixed seating, which would have complicated or obstructed APE's plans, had failed 6-4, with one supervisor absent, June 6, as the Bay Area Reporter reported at the time.

The HPC and planning commissions both approved a zoning ordinance that allows a conditional use authorization for second floor nighttime entertainment throughout the Castro commercial district.

Gregg Perloff, APE's CEO and co-founder, stated to the B.A.R. his thanks after the joint meeting.

"Our commitment to and celebration of the LGBTQ communities is long term and unshakable, especially in a time when these communities are under attack," Perloff stated. "This project is a labor of love for us, and we will make everyone proud to be part of it. Thank you for giving us this stewardship."

Joe Sangirardi, a gay man who is co-chair of Neighbors for a Restored Castro Theatre, told the B.A.R. after the meeting that "as residents of the Castro, today we've won ourselves a bright future."

"The community came out 2:1 in support of a positive vision of the future of the theater and our neighborhood and we're excited to welcome APE as valued members of our Castro community," he continued.

Not everyone was so sanguine, but Peter Pastreich, a straight ally who is the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, told the B.A.R. that the forces opposed to change at the theater can claim a victory of their own, too.

"We are proud that in the last year, APE has made some important changes, including the motorized risers, and guarantees of minimum numbers of films and LGBTQ-related events," he said. "That would not have been possible without the work of the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition and the conservancy."

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced the interior landmarking last year after APE took over management of the theater. District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston had proposed the amendment that would have required the orchestra seating to be included in the interior landmark ordinance. (The exterior of the theater was designated a city landmark in 1977.)

Mandelman did not return a request for comment for this report.


Regarding the theater itself, the HPC approved a certificate of appropriateness for APE's proposed changes 5-0, and the planning commission approved a conditional use permit to change the allowed uses of the venue (such as the introduction of bars).

The HPC's approval came with no new conditions. Planning added several conditions, including one that APE must meet with community groups once a year for guidance regarding its community benefits package, and with the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District once a year. APE would also issue an annual report.

The conditions would start after the certificate of occupancy, the planning commission determined.

The planning commission approved the conditional use authorization with conditions on a vote of 4-2.

Planning Commissioner Theresa Imperial strongly urged APE to work with the cultural district and other community groups.

Commissioner Sue Diamond said she supported the project for several reasons, including the renovation of the "gorgeous space," and to make it a profitable enterprise with public access. She said the conditions imposed by the commission accomplish that.

Commissioner Kathrin Moore said she was disappointed in APE. She felt the community was speaking to a more emotional level. She said she would not support the project.

Moore and Imperial were in dissent.

The commissions' decisions can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Tina Aguirre, a genderqueer person who is the manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, that they remain "deeply skeptical of APE's ability to observe cultural humility or to center LGBTQ people, places and culture in the Castro Theatre."

"The idea that APE can only agree to one meeting a year with the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District is very problematic," Aguirre stated. "As Pride Month continues, it's important to name that Pride is a Protest because the work we do remains critical to our future. We can't put blind faith in for-profit corporations."

Aguirre did concede, "if we look at where we started with APE a year ago, we've achieved a lot through our advocacy."

"This advocacy work is very important and positive," they stated.

At the start of the meeting, several commissioners disclosed they had toured the theater, met with APE representatives, met with members of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, or all three.

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 operator of the 101-year-old Castro Theatre.

Some Castro neighborhood organizations, and 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 APE's proposed changes.

APE has recently stated that it will screen films about one-third of the time the theater is open — about 175 days in total — which has dismayed moviegoers and many others.

Public comment

Thursday's joint planning-HPC meeting featured three and a half hours of public comment.

All told, of in-person public comment, 37 were in favor of APE's plans and 20 were opposed, with one comment being ambiguous. Of phone public comment, 25 were in favor of APE's plans, with 11 opposed, with one comment being too muffled for a B.A.R. reporter to hear.

"Don't drive the last nail into the Castro's coffin by preventing progress," Zach Taylor, a gay man who spoke in favor of APE, said during public comment. "I've been a Castro resident for 10 years. I have seen a steady and, in recent years, sharp decline in our beautiful and once-vibrant sanctuary. Businesses are closing every month and few are being replaced. I walk around the neighborhood every single day. I implore you to do the same. A youthful injection of energy ... to the neighborhood [is] crucial to its vibrancy and sustenance as a queer neighborhood."

Those who spoke against the plan countered that it's APE that threatens the Castro neighborhood's LGBTQ character. They urged the commissioners to, at the very least, impose binding conditions on APE.

"Commissioners: you are in a position to reject APE's mystifications and properly limit its plans to damage an LGBTQ historic site," queer historian Gerard Koskovich said during public comment. "APE has asserted that movie palace seating is not a character defining feature of a movie palace. This is not factual, it's an alternative fact or — to reference a classic film — it's gaslighting. ... APE has asserted that presence of seating is absence of seating most of all of the time. This assertion is not factual, it's gaslighting."

Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is the president of the Castro Merchants Association, spoke from her family's experience running Cliff's Variety for decades. She is co-owner of the longtime shop.

"As the second-oldest business in the Castro — the theater being the only one older than me — I can tell you the only way to remain relevant and fiscally stable is the ability to pivot," Asten Bennett said. "The viability of the theater is essential to the entire health and well being of the Castro. I understand many people fear change and the unknown, but running a business that has existed in the Castro for 88 years, the one thing I can tell you is change is constant and adjusting to change is necessary."

Terry Beswick, a gay man who helped to start San Franciscans to Save the Castro Theatre, said that any assurances APE has made have been because of "community advocacy." These, thus far, still come up short, he said.

"Unfortunately, in the past year I've experienced a lot of disappointment, not just with APE, but members of the community who I feel were basically persuaded by a high-powered PR and lobbying campaign," he said. "What APE is proposing is to have 175 days out of the year, really nights, with programming. This means more than half of the year the theater would be closed, and every day during the day where there used to be one or two matinees the theater would be closed."

The Nasser family's attorney, Jim Abrams, attempted to speak during public comment but was told he should have spoken earlier, with the project sponsors.

"There are many opinions about how this theater could have been run, should have been, run both into the past and into the future," he said before he was told he could not speak during public comment because he has a financial interest.

He was later invited back.

"The attendance was not there, and it was no one's fault," he said. "Given that fact, the family reached out, looked for an operator and found Another Planet Entertainment. ... They have already leased the building. The Nassers support the project and want to see the theater reopen and the neighborhood thrive. The success of the theater has occurred over the last century without the landmarking of the interior of the building."

When the project sponsors spoke, at the outset of the meeting, they presented a vision of a revitalized and restored theater hosting a variety of events.

Jeff Greene of Evergreene Architectural Arts will be doing the restoration work, according to Carolyn Kiernat of Page & Turnbull.

Evergreene has previously worked on the United States Capitol, Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building and, in San Francisco, 450 Sutter and 140 New Montgomery streets.

"Jeff and his team will bring the same expertise and quality work to the Castro Theatre," Kiernat said.

After public comment, the commissioners had the chance to offer their thoughts before voting.

HPC Commissioner Ruchira Nageswaran said that the commission can't "speak to the vitality of the business" but, in terms of historic preservation, she is concerned about what would happen if APE pulls out. She brought up a speaker during public comment who included "the photographs of other theaters [in other cities] being reused as stores, gyms or any of those other types of uses."

"Whenever we look at a project under the Secretary of the Interior standards, we are trying to find something compatible, to maintain the character of the place," she said. "I feel like this use is compatible with the theater and I know the sensitive topic refers to the seats, [but] in looking at the presentation, furnishings are not part of the architecture but when you are looking at a theater, seats are an important part, which is why the presence of the seating is in the landmarking legislation."

However, Nageswaran noted that since "over time these elements have changed" — referring to the current seats having been installed in 2001 — "I just want to make it clear the integrity of the overall space is important but the seating is not part of that," referring again to the present seating.

APE executive Mary Conde told the commissioners that the company is looking to have neighborhood businesses work with them as vendors. For example, sweets from queer-owned Kokak Chocolates were available at June 14's opening of the Frameline Film Festival, she said.

Planning Commissioner Derek Braun, the only LGBTQ person on either commission who was present to vote on the matter, said the issue is "very important and meaningful to me, both as a gay man in San Francisco and as someone who's lived in the Castro commercial district for most of my time in the city." (He had lived near Spike's Coffee till last year, he said.)

"It was my average weeknight movie house," he said. "I'm trying to find the path forward here to allow the revitalization of the Castro Theatre to happen. ... Speaking for myself, I am generally in favor of the nighttime entertainment ordinance and the bar use on the first and second floors."

Braun said he nonetheless has "questions and concerns" about maintaining LGBTQ and cinema culture in the space. He questioned APE representatives to ask about what conditions they'd be willing to accept.

"We believe the outcome will speak for itself because our track record for the last 40 years, really 50 years, shows what we do," Dan Serot of APE replied. "Movies just don't have the same allure to the public as they [did]. We believe live events have a place with people, they have throughout my lifetime, but we don't know if that will continue. That's the reason why it's difficult to give you certainty when it's uncertain."

Updated, 6/16/23: This article has been updated with comments from APE, the Castro Theatre Conservancy, and the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.

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