Community group holds Castro Theatre town hall ahead of Historic Preservation Commission meeting [Updated]

Community group holds Castro Theatre town hall ahead of Historic Preservation Commission meeting [Updated]
Photo: Julie Richter/Castro Theatre Conservancy
By Steven Bracco - Published on January 30, 2023.

Last Thursday, a coalition of community groups held a Castro Theatre town hall ahead of two consequential public meetings about the theatre's landmark status and preservation of its seats.

It's now been over one year since it was announced that Another Planet Entertainment (APE) would be taking over the programming and overhauling the theater, while ownership remains with the Nasser family and Bay Properties Inc.

Last year, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman requested that the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) consider the expansion of the landmark designation for the theater, which would include the existing, orchestra-style seating. The Castro Theatre was officially designated as San Francisco landmark #100 on September 3, 1977.

The HPC will consider this expansion at its meeting on Wednesday, February 4 followed by the San Francisco Planning Commission discussing the theater in March.


Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline

 

The town hall was organized by the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition which includes the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, Castro Merchants, Castro Theatre Conservancy, Frameline Film Festival, Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza, Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club, Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club, SF Heritage, SF Neon, Dan Nicoletta, Cleve Jones, Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ), and others. [Full disclosure: Steven Bracco, Hoodline's Castro reporter, is a board member of the CQCD and member of the Castro Theatre Coalition.]

Since making its announcement, APE and the Nasser Family have struggled to gain support from community groups and government agencies. In October, the Castro Merchants declined to sign a letter in support of APE's proposed changes to the 100-year-old Castro Theatre. In August, the Small Business Commission voted unanimously to continue a resolution of support to a later date.

Proposed renovations include removing the orchestra-level seats and replacing them with four tiered sections of platforms with removable seats; removing the lobby-area concession stand; expanding the women's restroom; improving the ventilation and electrical systems; adding a ground-floor dressing room; and possibly adding an elevator with access from the lobby level up to the second floor.


The latest rendering of the proposed standing-room floor plan. | Image: Castro Theatre

 

The town hall drew over 100 attendees to the Most Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in the Castro. Noticeably absent from the meeting were the Nasser Family and representatives from APE.

Just a few hours ahead of the meeting, APE released new renderings of its proposed changes to the Castro Theatre's orchestra-level seating which includes a motorized raked floor.

"The proposed new seating program for the orchestra level of the Castro Theatre allows flexible reconfiguration of the venue, permitting a more diverse set of programming — seated events and film — on stepped tiers replicating the existing sloped floor; standing room concerts, fundraisers, seated dinners and more. This added seating flexibility is critical to the proposed programming," explained law firm Reuben, Junius & Rose, LLP in a letter to HPC.

"The existing house seats, which were installed in 2001, are replacement seats that are not original to the Castro Theatre," the letter adds. "The new seats that will be installed will be comfortable and appropriate for seated events, including film viewing."

"The raked concrete floor is not a distinctive feature of the building and it does not exhibit the level of craftsmanship that would elevate it to the status of a character defining feature," the letter argues. "The raked floor consists of a concrete slab with a function [sic] wood strip floor laid over it. These flooring features lack the detail and ornamentation that give the Castro Theatre its unique character."

 
 
 
 
 
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"This is not only the best, but the only way to keep the Castro open,” APE spokesperson David Perry told the SF Chronicle on the day of the town hall. “There has been a lot of understandable passion and concern about the changes to the Castro,” adds Perry. “Today, we put out a solution that we think is a win-win-win. We're thrilled to have found a wonderful solution that guarantees not only a vibrant future for film, but also allows for an expanded repertoire of programming including a continuing commitment to the LGBTQ communities and Castro neighborhood that will ensure another 100 years of this beloved and irreplaceable institution."

In response to the motorized seats, CQCD executive co-chair Stephen Torres said, “These are the same plans that they tried to sell us on a year ago. Nothing has changed. What they have changed are the adjectives that they used to describe them.”


Gerard Koskovich addresses the crowd. | Photo: Julie Richter/Castro Theatre Conservancy

 

"All of their magical talk about magical seats coming out of nowhere are irrelevant with respect to historic preservation and the space," added queer public historian Gerard Koskovich. "Their (the commissioners') decision is based on the secretary of the interior's historic preservation standards."

Community activist Michael Petrelis also posted a letter obtained during a public records request from the Nasser Family to Castro Theatre Conservancy executive director Peter Pastreich.

The November 28 letter proposed Pastreich provide "an initial proposal ('term sheet') for subleasing the Castro Theater within 10 business days of the date hereof" due to "our mutual interest in participating in discussions about the potential of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, or a duly formed affiliate ('Castro Conservancy'), entering into a sublease agreement with APESF, LLC ('tenant'), which would be consented to by 429CASATROLLC ('landlord')."

The letter also proposed that the conservancy be responsible for Castro Theatre capital improvements "estimated to cost approximately $20 million."

In response to the letter, Perry told the Bay Area Reporter, "Another Planet met with the conservancy on October 27 at SF City Hall to hear their proposal. There was none. Another Planet sent the letter recently shared online one month later. In the intervening three months, the conservancy has offered no plans, no budgets, and no commitment to improve the theatre."

Earlier this month Petrelis also posted text messages obtained during a public records request between Mandelman and controversial former Planning Commissioner Dennis Richards.

 

In the December 7 messages, Richards stated to Mandelman, "I haven't taken any position on this issue but I feel there is definitely a 'happy middle' that can be found. I'd be happy to help out in any way that may benefit the neighborhood."

In response, Mandelman wrote "not even sure APE is still interested; they're acting like they're done" and "they've definitely put their pencils down."

At the town hall, Torres explained the group's interactions with the Nasser Family and APE leading up until this point. Torres said they sent a letter to the Nasser family during the pandemic but "did not hear anything."

Then, after it was announced APE would be taking over management, Torres said, "We sent a letter welcoming APE to the neighborhood."


Stephen Torress addresses the crowd. | Photo: Julie Richter/Castro Theatre Conservancy

 

According to Torres, an initial meeting was not productive. "It was apparent there was a significant lack of cultural competency, but we were cautiously optimistic," said Torres. "We asked for subsequent meetings. That never happened."

APE then hosted a town hall meeting in August where an overwhelming number of attendees spoke out against the proposed removal of the orchestra-level seating.

Torres and others are concerned about the effects the removal of the seating will have on the neighborhood. "We have already experienced the crowds coming out of the theater under this stewardship and it's not altogether clear all the impacts are positive," said Torres who is also a bartender at the historic Twin Peaks Tavern.

"What effect will that have on the neighborhood?" asked Koskovich. "There are lots of places to put on rock shows in San Francisco. There is only one Castro Theatre."


Peter Pastreich addresses the crowd. | Photo: Julie Richter/Castro Theatre Conservancy

 

Pastreich believes that the theater should be run as a nonprofit.

"Neither APE nor the Nassers seem to have anticipated the strong community reaction to the plan to turn the theater into a live music venue unlikely to serve as a home for film," said Pastreich.

Pastreich pointed toward the lack of programming currently scheduled at the theatre. At this time, no shows are scheduled and three events took place during the month of January.

"Given the lack of action at the Castro right now, I wonder how we'll be able to tell" if the theater closed, said Pastreich.

Update 3/31:

After publication, APE spokesperson David Perry shared a press release announcing that LGBTQ+ film festival Frameline has endorsed the proposed Castro Theatre changes.

“Frameline looks forward to screening at the Castro Theatre every June – it will always be our home,” said James Woolley Executive Director of Frameline in a release.

“The improvements to accessibility for all audiences, especially our many customers with disabilities, are very exciting," added Woolley. "In addition we appreciate a new HVAC system. The seats retain sightlines ideal for film and the prototype seats we sampled are comfortable and secure. The importance of regularly premiering new queer cinema at the Castro Theatre for both the queer community, and our rising queer filmmakers remains at the core of our ability to fulfill our mission. We feel that these latest proposed revisions to the seating will help ensure Frameline’s home remains at the Castro for years to come.”

“There would be no Castro Theatre without the Frameline LGBTQ International Film Festival,” said APE senior vice president Mary Conde. “For the last many months, we have been grateful for their wisdom, input and support. We can’t wait to welcome Frameline into a renovated Castro Theatre.“