Concert promoter Another Planet Entertainment got their wish on their proposed Castro Theatre renovations Thursday, though also agreed to a laundry list of compromises dictating their film and LGBTQ programming, and even what concessions they sell at the snack bar.
It’s been a year and a half since Berkeley-based Another Planet Entertainment (APE) took over the Castro Theatre operations and unveiled their wildly controversial plan to remove the theater’s lower-level seats to make the place a more conventional concert hall. And while months of raucous public meetings and contentious City Hall hearings on the matter plodded along, we learned that Supervisor Aaron Peskin tried to broker a compromise deal between APE and disappointed community groups, to no avail.
The district’s Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also tried to hammer out a compromise, but he couldn’t get the sides to budge either.
But that grand compromise finally did arrive Thursday, or rather, APE got their City Hall approval, but with a million little cuts and compromises applied to it. At an unprecedented joint meeting between the SF Planning Commission and the SF Historic Preservation Commission that went seven and a half hours, both commissions jointly approved the whole $15 million renovation, but with many, many conditions.
APE is required to activate the space at least 180 days a year, 33% of their programming must be film, no less than 25% of their programming has to be LGBTQIA-themed, and they’re even required to source their concession stand snacks from local vendors.
Before the vote to approve, notable local drag queen Donna Sachet declared, “We’re entrusting our Castro Theatre to a local, civic-minded group, who is willing and able to invest more than $15 million in a faded venue desperately in need of loving restoration.”
Thursday's meeting was actually two separate commission meetings with hours of public comment and bureaucratic wrangling. Buckle in, because these deliberations are going to read like a Tolstoy novel.
The Historical Preservation Commission voted on whether to grant a “certificate of appropriateness” on whether APE’s renovations will be consistent with the updated landmark status the SF Board of Supervisors granted last month, a landmark that did not include the theater’s orchestra seats as currently arranged. (They approved that unanimously, 5-0). The Planning Commission then voted on whether to grant conditional use permits to make those renovations, and they approved those permits in a 4-2 vote.
“I feel like this use is compatible with the theater,” Historic Preservation commissioner Ruchira Nageswaran said. “The integrity of the overall space is important. But the seats are not necessarily part of that. And even [architect Timothy] Pflueger’s drawings did not include seats.”
APE agreed that their grand, sweeping changes to the theater’s ceiling work, sgraffito murals, and patching of proscenium walls would be completed within a five-year period. They also plan to replace the HVAC system and had to show they would do so in a way that does not affect the theater’s murals and interior finishes.
“As a mother, I would like to see this type of legacy and generational gift pass along,” added commissioner Lydia So. “We need to evolve. We need to enable space and activities for our current generation.”
Then in the more crucial Planning Commission vote, commissioners were literally re-writing the lengthy permit in real time on projector screens throughout their deliberations. Among the many conditions APE had to agree to was meeting with the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District “once per year for guidance,” and sourcing at least half of their food and beverages from within the neighborhood.
They also needed a special entertainment permit for their plans to add a balcony-level bar. But we learned Thursday that these would be more mobile bars on wheels, with food sold too.
“The front counter of those concession stands are on wheels, and they’re in the lobby,” the project’s lead architect Christopher Wasney explained. “Those front counters or front bars could wheel into the house for, say, a loud concert.”
And they will be adding “scissor gates” to the theater’s front entrance and box office area underneath the marquee, which rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. “We’re sad to report the security gate is necessary,” Wasney said. “The ticket booth has been vandalized two or three times in the last few months. This gate would not be permanently affixed to the building, it would be a rolling piece of equipment.”
APE also said they’d be bringing Oasis owner and SF Drag Laureate D’Arcy Drollinger to give guidance on programming for the LGBTQ community. This did not impress many people in the LGBTQ community.
“What seemed like very simple expectations were just deemed impossible,” Castro LGBTQ Cultural District co-chair Jen Reck said before the vote. “It feels very disappointing if what is voted upon is one meeting annually with the Cultural District.”
“To have a representative for APE say they want the Castro Theatre to be the global LGBTQ cultural hub, and then at minimum they’ll have 25% of LGBTQ programming, but they can’t understand how they would ever figure out what that might actually entail because it’s complex — that’s where the community comes in,” Reck added.
One of the two no votes was from Planning commissioner Kathrin Moore “I am quite disappointed,” Moore said. “Mostly I’m disappointed about the unresponsiveness of the applicant.” She complained that what APE was doing was akin to “the monetizing of all cultural assets as soon as someone realizes they can make a buck on it.”
But APE did better at turning out their supporters than they have at previous meetings (and how organic was the matching blue shirt campaign?). But they agreed to countless compromises, and they also showed more savviness at how the San Francisco political culture (or machine) operates than they have in previous meetings.
“What I sense is an incredibly strong commitment to the Castro Theatre as an institution,” Planning Commissioner Sue Diamond said before the vote. “I really look forward to the day when it’s reopened and we can all enjoy the theater."
Image: Joe Kukura