An Update On The Long-Vacant Harding Theater

If you’re wondering what’s up with the Harding Theater at 616 Divisadero, that giant building between Hayes and Grove that looks old-timey and cool but blighted and sad all at the same time, you’re not alone. It’s one of our readers’ most frequent questions. And now we’ve got the scoop.

Local community organizer and activist Amy Farah Weiss, founder of Neighbors Developing Divisadero and the Harding Theater Revitalization Project, told Hoodline that she had recently helped bring together a group of business owners and neighbors who made an offer to buy the 76-year-old theater for around $4 million, the one-time asking price for the Harding when it was on sale, but the offer was refused.

“The building is not for sale,” current owner Michael Klestoff, of West & Praszker Realtors, told Hoodline. “We’re looking for a tenant for the property.”

Klestoff says he’s working on a “smaller project on the vacant part of the lot,” but that the theater is available to be rented. When asked what kind of a tenant he is specifically hoping to see in the theater, Klestoff simply said, “Somebody that could use the larger space would be the ideal tenant. But again, it’s open right now.”

Klestoff wouldn’t provide any more information about what that “smaller project” might be, but it seems likely he wants to pursue a scaled-back version of his original plan to demolish the entire building and replace it with 18 condos and 5,000 square feet of retail space. The empty portion of the L-shaped lot on which the Harding sits (there is an 80-foot frontage on Divisadero, and a 45-foot frontage on Hayes) could accommodate a smaller building of condos, and Klestoff, as he says he’s already trying to do, could rent out the theater. But even plans for a smaller building on the empty lot would require an environmental review by the city, presumably, because of the building’s eligibility for listing on the California Register of Historical Resources.

Colby Moore, a neighborhood resident who works in commercial real estate, was part of the partnership that made a run at acquiring the building a few months ago. As a local, Moore would like to see the Harding Theater return to its days as a performance venue in some capacity, but says that, while the Hayes Street access isn’t absolutely crucial to the theater’s viability, the fact that Klestoff decided to develop the empty portion of the lot fronting on Hayes himself made the entire property far less attractive of an investment. “That was a big piece for us, because there were some things we would like to do over there that would enhance the theater. You can build a kitchen there, access the theater from Hayes, all sorts of things that if you only have the front entrance you’re not able to do.”

He elaborates:

"It was important to our group that we control the site from the beginning, because we were in it for the long term. Even successful performance venues run into trouble somewhere down the line if they are tenants—there's no such thing as rent control in commercial real estate. Unfortunately, we could never quite close the gap with the current owner on pricing. We were close on a number of occasions and we had the right team with the right experience in place. But when the property was pulled from the market, negotiations just sort of fizzled out. I still think there's an opportunity for someone to occupy the space and do something fantastic, but they'll have to do it on different terms than we were comfortable with. Whatever the space becomes, I hope it's something that brings people together—and not in a gym or pharmacy sort of way. With all the great new energy on Divis, the one thing that feels missing is a place of the Harding's size and unique potential to sort of pull it all together and ground it. I think there's a real hunger for that in the neighborhood, and I think that's why the Harding has been such a lightning rod of controversy for so long."

Amy Farah Weiss, for her part, has not given up on supporting the Harding Theater on its journey “from blight to opening night,” but says that the Harding Theater Revitalization Project, which aims to turn the theater into a book store and home for a local dance company in addition to a music/performance venue, is pretty much at a stalemate since Klestoff is no longer willing to sell. “Can you imagine how absolutely amazing it would be to have a bookstore on Divisadero that is also a performance venue?” she asks.

She detailed her campaign’s next steps in an email to Hoodline: “Since the property owner continues to keep the theater blighted despite legitimate above-market-rate offers—offers that provide him with a profit on his initial purchase—it seems time for neighbors to push the city to use its power of eminent domain. Since eminent domain was used by the SF Redevelopment Agency to destroy the culture of Fillmore and Divisadero neighborhoods in their Harlem of the West post-WWII days, it’s only fitting that neighbors tap into this public power to help bring inclusive, diverse culture to the neighborhood now in 2014.”

We'll keep you posted with any developments. 

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