Plans Moving Forward For Luxury Condos On Pagoda Theater Site

North Beach residents have been wondering what's happening with the old Pagoda Theater site, now that the SFMTA is done using it to remove tunnel-boring machines for the forthcoming Central Subway.

The answer: like so many buildings in SF these days, it's becoming housing. Plans are on track to turn the Pagoda into The Palace at Washington Square, a development with 19 luxury condos, a roughly 4,700-square-foot restaurant and a maximum of 27 underground parking spaces.

Martin Kirkwood, real estate broker for the site's owner, Joel Campos, said financing is in place from a "major retail bank," city approvals are all set and the plan is to break ground by mid-November. "We’re just waiting for a permit to be approved at the Department of Building Inspection, and we’ll be in," he said. 

Future site of The Palace at Washington Square. 

The contractor for the site will be Richmond-based West Builders. "The project is fully entitled and the site permit is complete," the company's CEO, Todd Whitlock, confirmed, adding that there's a commitment for financing. "The loan will close sometime in October or November, and we'll be breaking ground as soon as we can." The first order of business: filling the shaft created to remove the digging machines.

The history of the Pagoda property is long and complex, as a 2009 article in the Semaphore, published by the neighborhood group Telegraph Hill Dwellers, explains. Campos, owner of long-running taquerias La Corneta, originally bought the building in 2004 with hopes of placing a restaurant on the site, Kirkwood said. He entered into talks with the House of Blues, but legislation in North Beach prevented that from moving forward.

Plans were initially approved for a mixed-use development on Jan. 8th, 2009, and a new set of plans, which included demolition of the then-gutted theater, were approved on Feb. 14th, 2013. In exchange for using the site to remove the subway digging machines, the city paid rent to Campos and set up a special use district to spot-zone the site specifically for the development, much to some neighbors' chagrin.

Kirkwood, however, said that Campos sacrificed for the greater good of the neighborhood. “The cost to do construction on that property went up by millions during those two years of waiting to commence construction,” he said.

Condos will overlook Washington Square Park.

Kirkwood said that Campos is in talks with several big-name chefs to partner with him in the restaurant space, and is developing the condos himself with the financing. The residential portion—four floors of luxury condos above a ground-floor restaurant—will include two one-bedroom units, two three-bedroom units and 15 two-bedroom units, each running about 1,300–1,500 square feet. (Campos will pay the in-lieu fee for affordable housing.)

The new units will feature high-end finishes and amenities, including towel warmers and electric floor heating. Some will have private decks, and there will be a roof deck as well. “When we say luxury, we mean luxury units," Kirkwood said. "We’re using luxury standards in construction and sound attenuation." It'll be a concrete building using metal studs and will be "green and smart," he added. 

No renderings are available yet, but Kirkwood said that "we’re still following the intent and the spirit of what was approved," despite some modifications to exterior finishes and interior design. (Renderings are not required to obtain building permits, according to the Planning Department.) The Board of Supervisors allowed a height extension from 40 to 55 feet, which was the original height of the Pagoda.

The former Pagoda Theater and blade sign. (Photo: SFMTA/centralsubwayblog.com)

The 140-page Planning packet from 2013, which includes details about floor plans and exterior finishes, only contains a thumbnail rendering of the proposed exterior. New renderings should be online in November, on a website to be created for the project. 

Kirkwood said numerous meetings were initially held with neighbors and neighborhood groups on the project. "However, the last time we had a community meeting was around 2012," he added.

Some neighbors have wondered if the city is still interested in the site for a future Central Subway stop, but it appears not to be the case. "The Central Subway project has not used the site for about 9 months now," Paul Rose, SFMTA spokesman, said in a statement. "The future of the site rests solely with the owner."

Though Kirkwood met with the SFMTA on Sept. 11th, Rose said that "recent meetings were to finalize contract details of the previous contract to use the site for tunnel boring machine extraction."

Engineers let the tunnel boring machine retrieval shaft slowly fill with groundwater, in order to maintain pressure on their cutterheads during breakthrough. (Photo: SFMTA)

"Some people think that the property has already been sold to the city. There’s no negotiations for purchase or further extensions of leasing any part of the property," Kirkwood said. Indeed, the SFMTA FAQ page about the removal of tunnel boring machines includes this statement: 

Will the Pagoda Palace site be used for any Central Subway construction other than constructing a retrieval shaft, removing the TBMs and restoring the site?
No. The SFMTA has signed an agreement with the Pagoda Palace property owner to utilize the site for two years. In that time, our contractor will demolish the existing building, construct a retrieval shaft for the TBMs, extract the machines, and restore the site. After the lease period is complete, no further Central Subway construction is planned to occur at the Pagoda site.

Others, however, question whether Campos will really build on the site, or sell to another developer. "Once the hole’s filled in, it’s a buildable site," said Lance Carnes, who spearheaded the "No North Beach Dig" campaign in opposition to the city digging from the Central Subway station on Washington Street in Chinatown to the Pagoda Theater site.  

Carnes thinks The Palace at Washington Square could be built, but there's another possibility that "they could get this whole thing set up and sell it to somebody." Carnes also questioned whether maybe there could be a "secret move" by the city to secure the site for a future subway station, but that could be 15 to 20 years in the future.

Kirkwood said he gets about 10 calls per week, many of which are from other developers interested in the site. But he insisted that Campos is going ahead with the condos and restaurant.

"We’re just very happy to have the property back, so we can begin construction as soon as possible,” Kirkwood said.

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Plans moving forward for luxury condos on pagoda theater site