A Board of Supes committee today approved language that would landmark the fixed seating and raked floor in the Castro Theater, sending a message that Another Planet Entertainment needs to come to a an agreement with community activists about the future of the theater quickly.
The 2-1 vote by the Land Use and Transportation Committee amended the landmark designation to including the phrase “fixed theatrical seating configured in a movie-palace style,” which would make difficult, if not impossible, APE’s plans to replace the orchestra seats with a level floor and movable seating to accommodate live music shows.
Sups. Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin supported the amendment, which Preston introduced. Sup. Myrna Melgar opposed it.
The entire landmark package, as amended, will come back to the committee next week, and then go to the full board, where six votes will be required for passage.
Preston said that the “the Castro is more than an entertainment venue, it’s a cornerstone of the LGBTQ community.”
Among the supporters of his amendment: The LGBTQ Cultural District, Soma Pilipinas, the GLBT Historical Society, both the Alice B. Toklas and Harvey Milk Democratic Clubs (which are often not on the same side on political issues), SF Heritage, as well as former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, Cleve Jones, Marga Gomez, Juanita MORE, and others.
APE opposed it, but most of the organized opposition appeared to come from GrowSF, a Big Tech and Real Estate group devoted to defeating progressive candidates and policies. The vast majority of the letters to the committee were generated by the group’s website and had identical language.
Sup. Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro, opened the discussion by in essence siding with APE, saying that the amendment “would send the wrong symbolic message.” He also said he’s not sure that the landmark designation would prevent the city from approving plans to tear out the seats and level the floor.
He said that APE didn’t initially work well with the community, but the company has come “a long way.” He said that the supes “should not second guess the work of the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission.”
But the Historic Preservation Commission didn’t exactly decline to landmark the seats; that agency, in its findings, suggested that the fixed seats are important, but the final language wasn’t clear.
Opponents of the landmarking language argued that the only way the theater will remain viable is as a mixed-use venue with the flexibility to host different types of entertainment. APE is looking to turn it into a type of nightclub, with bars and a dance floor, for live music shows.
“We need to support flexibility,” Melgar said.
Some Castro merchants said that allowing more live music events would attract visitors to the neighborhood and be good for community businesses.
Peskin said he wanted to see a legally enforceable agreement between APE and the Castro community, but “APE has frankly stonewalled. … They are treating this as a PR and lobbying exercise,” not a community process, he said.
He also noted that APE, which has the lease for the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, promised more than ten years ago to spend $10 million upgrading the facility. “Only $564,475 has been spent,” he said.
That revelation immediately spurred a statement from the supporters of Preston’s amendment. From a press release:
“APE’s failure to make timely repairs does not inspire confidence in their ability to manage other cultural institutions in our city,” said Tina V. Aguirre, Cultural District Director of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. “The improvements to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium include obligations to improve disability access. Frankly, when it comes to APE’s promise to invest $15 million in the Castro Theatre, that starts to look like a promise that APE will never keep.”
“APE should be spending less money on a PR campaign around the Castro Theatre and more energy fulfilling its existing promises,” said Terrance Alan of the Castro Merchants Association, a nonprofit association of businesses in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood. “These latest revelations should lead to heightened scrutiny of APE’s capability to effectively manage the Castro Theatre. It should put the community on notice of who we’re dealing with.”
David Perry, a spokesperson for APE, issued this statement:
Tonight’s vote is not the end of this discussion. It is perplexing that after public comment of which three quarters of the speakers supported Another Planet, two members of the Board of Supervisors with no direct experience of the Castro neighborhood overrode fact, majority opinion and the economics of 2023 to hobble a private business from investing $15 million into a struggling community.
Preston, who once owned a live music venue, said that the debate about APE and live music is missing the point: “APE can renovate the theater to host film, comedy, and live music. I don’t accept that this kind of use can’t be done, and I’m confused by the opposition to this amendment. It’s strange that to carry out the intent of the landmark language is somehow an effort to kill the Castro.”
At this point, Peskin said, APE might have the motivation to cut a deal that would involve a privately enforceable contract with the community. “The Planning Commission puts conditions on approvals all the time, and they are rarely enforced, and when politics gets involved, they are never enforced,” he said.
Preston said that the one-week continuance might encourage further negotiations. “We all care about the Castro Theater,” he said.