Faced with an up-or-down vote on recommending that the Castro Theatre interior seats get landmark protection, the SF Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee punted that decision on Monday, and won’t consider it for another two weeks.
Word of the sudden and shocking death of drag queen Heklina was just reaching many of us Monday afternoon when the SF Board of Supervisors' Land Use and Transportation Committee took up a crucial hearing on the future of the Castro Theatre. Heklina had appeared many times on that stage, including the 2018 Roast of Heklina, and as seen below, the theater marquee paid her homage while Monday’s meeting took place. Helkina’s memory was evoked by many who spoke in public comment at the meeting, including the Castro’s former supervisor Tom Ammiano, and neighborhood activist Ralfka Gonzalez (known as “Queen Einstein”), who said “I want to give all my sympathies to all in the drag community, especially with all the things happening in the world. San Francisco should be a safe space.”
But in terms of the brass tacks of Monday’s meeting, the three-member Land Use and Transportation Committee was taking up the matter of considering a landmark designation that would preserve the current configuration of the theater’s seats. The venue’s new operator Another Planet Entertainment (APE) would like to alter those seating arrangements dramatically, making the traditional movie palace into more of a standard concert venue.
The Castro Theatre has been a designated landmark since 1977, but that designation only covers the exterior of the building. The new proposed landmarking language would preserve “the presence of seating” inside the theater. But preservation activists have proposed updated language to landmark and preserve the theater's “fixed theatrical seating configured in movie-palace style.”
And that late change to the language prompted the committee to kick this hot-potato issue out to their April 17 meeting.
The district’s supervisor Rafael Mandelman (who does not sit on this committee and didn’t have a vote Monday) noted there are some moving parts here, notably, a Planning Commission meeting next Thursday where APE is expected to seek an on-site liquor license and a permit for a balcony-level bar. Mandelman showed up at Monday's meeting to encourage the two-week delay.
“Any language change at this point, we would expect would have at least some impact on those bodies’ consideration of APE’s application,” Mandelman said. “I have had fruitful conversations with APE and Castro Theatre stakeholders that leave me to be hopeful that we can get to the win-win-win.”
“But we’re not there yet,” he added, and asked the committee “to give me a little more time to talk to some of the stakeholders and try to bridge the distance that remains between them.”
Supervisor Aaron Peskin is on the committee and does have a vote, and voiced some skepticism about APE’s current plans for the venue.
“This is not a business model that one can expect to operate five, six, or seven nights a week,” Peskin pointed out. “It’s probably one or two times a week. Which means that the venue is going to be dark about half the year.”
He pointed out that APE would need to get a Change of Use permit if the longtime movie theater were not showing movies somewhere around 180 days a year. And he found APE’s unwillingness to do that to be puzzling.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t have our cake and eat it too, and run the joint as a film operation with rich LGBTQ programming that 180 days,” Peskin said. He specifically called out APE CEO and co-founder Gregg Perloff, saying, “You’ve got to walk the walk the walk and talk the talk a little bit faster here, because I for one am getting very frustrated.”
We learned last week that Peskin had tried to broker an agreement between all parties behind closed doors, but as he told the Chronicle, “It ended badly and I told everybody to leave.”
Peskin added a clever play on words at Monday’s meeting, saying, “APE walked into this thing like a 300-pound gorilla. And that’s why they haven’t crossed the finish line yet.”
So now we have a Planning Commission on permitting a Castro Theatre balcony bar next week, and then another Land Use and Transportation Committee hearing on landmarking the seats the following week. All of these meetings will only produce recommendations, final say on these matters will go before the full Board of Supervisors.
And all of these meetings are sure to produce packed houses with dozens, if not hundreds of activists and advocates for both sides of the issue. But don’t be surprised if the biggest decisions are made in secret, closed-door meetings; as supervisors seek to broker that possible “win-win-win” scenario that Mandelman described.
Image: Steven Bracco via Hoodline