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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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City HallThe AgendaWho really owns the disputed parcel of land in the Mission District?

Who really owns the disputed parcel of land in the Mission District?

Plus: The Castro Theater battle moves to the Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission. That's The Agenda for June 11-18.


The struggle over a disputed 28,000-square foot strip of land in the Mission has now spilled over into violence. MissionLocal has been reporting, the former railroad right-of-way, used for freight trains more than a century ago, has complicated ownership. It’s a strange bit of complex old law, but as far as the city was concerned back in 2017, when the issue first came up, nobody had clear and visible title to the land.

Internet Service Provider Monkeybrains, which has an adjacent warehouse, claims it has an easement for parking rights. Teachers at an adjacent preschool park there, too.

Nobody cared for years, until a group of self-proclaimed gardeners named it the Mission Greenway, cut off the locks and the fence, and tried to put plants there, setting up a fight with Monkeybrains and the preschool.

Ramaytush Ohlone villages in what we now call San Francisco.

Santiago Lerma, an aide to Hillary Ronen who has been dealing with the nightmare for years now, told me that despite what the Greenway folks have claimed, there are in fact real, legal owners. The John Center company (Center was a Gold Rush-era farmer) owned a large part of it before the company went bust in 1938—but somewhere, there are either heirs or creditors who have a legal right to that parcel.

The Heinzer family, which bought another piece of the lot from a descendant of John Center in the 1990s, still has a deed to it, Lerma said, and the 95-year-old matriarch of the family is still alive.

“So we know who owns it,” Lerma said. “It’s just hard to find them all.”

At some point, the City Attorney’s Office will establish clear title, and the community can go from there.

Of course, the only folks who have the strongest right to it are the Ramaytush Ohlone.

That land was stolen from the Ohlone somewhere around 1782, when the Spanish missionaries arrived. It’s been given out as land grants by the King of Spain, seized by the US army, sold and sold again during the Gold Rush, became a railroad right of way afterward—but as the Board of Supervisors announced every week, the Ramaytush Ohlone “have never ceded, lost, nor forgotten their responsibilities as the caretakers of this place.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give it back?

Sadly, Lerma told me, that’s not within the city’s power, since the city can’t seize the land (it’s not a hazard, although some could argue that the people who are literally fighting over it are a bit of a hazard) and it’s not really a parcel that nobody clearly owns (although places like that exist).

This is a pretty small piece of land. But disputes over historic land and water rights are pretty common in this state— and it’s worth noting that whenever we have these sorts of disputes stretching back to the 1800s, the people who were here first don’t get a claim.

The battle over the future of the Castro Theater shifts this week to the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission, and the preservationists have released a list of requirements that they want to planners to impose.

The owners of the theater, the Nasser family, and Another Planet Entertainment are seeking approval from the Historic Preservation Commission for the plans to renovate the interior, and a Conditional Use permit to turn it into a nightclub with live music and a bar.

Both panels can approve the permits with pretty much any reasonable conditions. Here’s what the Castro Theater Conservancy is asking for:

  1. Increase the number of days in each calendar year on which film would be shown at the theater from 75 to 180 days, including no fewer than 100 days of films shown during the daytime.
  2. Increase the number of days in each calendar year that must include events open to the general public from 180 to 250 days, and remove the option for private corporate rentals not open to the general public to count toward that threshold.
  3. Establish the Castro Theatre Oversight Board, based on the similar Fox Oakland Theater Board (FOTB), to oversee operation of the theater consistent with all conditions, to preserve and sustain the theater as a cultural resource and arts and education facility, and to ensure that this key asset attracts visitors, promotes LGBTQ+ cultural heritage, and contributes to the vibrancy and sustainability of the Castro neighborhood.
  4. Require at least 80 days in each calendar year of events related to LGBTQ+ arts and culture.
  5. Require that the theater be made available for periodic educational and other purposes, including public tours, and for periodic use by community nonprofits.
  6. Require that at least 50 percent of concessions be sourced from local Castro neighborhood businesses.
  7. Establish that the default arrangement of the theater shall be with motorized risers in place and with theatrical style chairs on the risers.
  8. Repair and restore the Castro Theatre’s iconic “blade” sign during the first 30 days of operation under a Conditional Use authorization.
  9. Allow access to the Castro Theatre for public tours for educational purposes at least 12 days per year.
  10. Allow access to the Castro Theatre for community-based nonprofit organizations for educational or philanthropic purposes at least 12 days per year.

APE in its Community Benefits Package has offered to devote 33 percent of its programming to films and film festivals and

 The Castro Theatre will commit to hosting LGBTQ+ activities and artists as frequently as possible, with no less than 25% of programming. APE plans to establish a grants program administered by the non-profit organization Oasis Arts to subsidize performing LBGTQ+ artists, filmmakers, and local community groups.

The company commits to no percentage of its vendors, but says

 Event concessions will feature various menu items from a wide array of Castro restaurants, as well as hiring these local restaurants to provide catering services to performers and their staff. APE will use its online platform to highlight and recommend ticket holders visit neighboring businesses, including fan advisories, social media postings, venue website updates, and other one-off communications.

The private corporate parties are a significant part of APE’s business plan, and might be a sticking point.

The preservationists haven’t given up, Julie Richter, a spokesperson for the conservancy, told me:

The Conservancy still believes that the seating configuration should be landmarked, and the Conservancy still has the interest and financial backing to buy or lease the theater.

However, in the meantime, the Conservancy and the Cultural District submitted the proposed conditions to the Planning Commission, which we believe are needed to save San Francisco’s 101-year-old Castro Theatre and to protect its central place in sustaining the world-renowned LGBTQ+ culture of the Castro neighborhood.

The hearing is set for Thursday/15 and starts at 11am.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


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