SF Historical Preservation Commission recommends Castro Theatre landmark expansion

SF Historical Preservation Commission recommends Castro Theatre landmark expansion
Image: SFGovTV
By Steven Bracco - Published on February 03, 2023.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) voted unanimously in support of recommending the expansion of the Castro Theatre's landmark designation to the Board of Supervisors.

The HPC voted 6-0, with one recusal, in support of broadening of the existing landmark designation to include the interior of the 100-year-old theater. Commissioner Jason Wright was recused due to his employment with historic preservation architecture firm Page & Turnbull which has been hired by Another Planet Entertainment (APE).

After the hearing, ambiguity remains around one of the most contentious portions of the landmark designation. The recommended landmark designation would preserve the 'presence of seating' inside the historic theatre but did not clarify what that specifically meant.

Gerard Koskovich addressing the commission. | Image: SFGovTV


Many speakers in the audience including gay public historian Gerard Koskovich requested HPC specify 'fixed seating' to leave no question about whether or not APE could move forward with its proposed renovations including removing the orchestra-level seats and replacing them with four tiered sections of platforms with removable seats.

Additional renovations include 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.

It was just over a year ago when it was announced that APE would be taking over the programming and overhauling the theater, while ownership remains with the Nasser family and Bay Properties Inc.

SF Planning staff member Alex Westoff led of the meeting by giving a preliminary recommendation in support of the expanded landmarking. The Castro Theatre was officially designated as San Francisco landmark #100 on September 3, 1977.

At issue in the meeting was only the landmark designation and nothing else. "We cannot consider economic viability," said HPC commissioner Richard S.E. Johns.

Proposed standing room floor plan. | Image: Page & Turnbull/SF Planning


"Likewise there's been a lot of discussion of if Another Planet is a good guy or a bad actor. That's not in front of us and we just don't consider that at this stage," added Johns. "All the other things are for another day in front of us, or are of a political nature, and those are the things the Board of Supervisors will want to hear in depth and will want to consider."

Public comment at the hearing went on for five hours and at one point the hearing had to be moved to another room.

"Please retain the current rake and seats as it is important to LGBTQ people and culture that the Castro Theatre remains a community venue accessible to all and not just those who can afford to attend expensive concerts or rent it for private events," said Castro LGBTQ Cultural District (CQCD) director Tina Aguirre. "Also, movies in the Castro are very important to maintaining queer and trans culture."

Castro resident Joe Sangirardi spoke in support of APE's proposed renovations. "I'm asking you to preserve as much of the inside of the Castro Theatre as you can without condemning it to the same fate as other theaters across the country," said Sangirardi. "To save the seats is to shutter the Castro."

Lex Sloan addressing the commission. | Image: SFGovTV


Roxie Theater executive director Lex Sloan said the decision was significant for other theater as well.

"This moment is the absolute definition of intangible cultural heritage," said Sloan. "Your vote not only affects the Castro, but it will have ripple effects across all the remaining historic cinemas in San Francisco."

"SF Heritage objects to the proposed changes at the theater and we believe that permanent theatre-style seating is a significant aspect of the Castro Theatre auditorium," said SF Heritage's Christine Madrid French.

Dylan MacNiven, owner of Cafe Du Nord, Wooden Spoon, Woodhouse Fish Co., and West of Pecos said, "There is no way to achieve the kind of financial stability needed to properly preserve the Castro Theatre without providing a configuration suitable for more types of events. Restricting a venue to seated performances is no longer viable. Preserving the current seating configuration would represent a severe handicap to the long-term future of the theatre no matter who is operating the business."

Dylan MacNiven addressing the commission. | Image: SFGovTV


Community activist Michael Petrelis pointed out that the Castro Theatre was dark from December 24 through January 27. The Castro Theatre currently has no shows scheduled.

"That absence represents the commitment of Another Planet," said Petrelis. "I fear that if you do not landmark the interior and help us save the seats... and if three years from now APE gets what it wants and it's a flop, then what," asked Petrelis.

Lawyer Jim Abrams spoke on behalf of the Nasser Family, who were not present at the hearing, in support of not including the seats in the landmark designation.

Abrams presented ticket sale data from the Castro Theatre's 100th Anniversary celebration which showed a low level of attendance. "Overall in the final three years, the family operated the theatre, it operated on a loss on more than 75% of the days when only films were shown," said Abrams.

Michael Petrelis addressing the commission. | Image: SFGovTV


Noir City Film Festival producer and host Eddie Muller refuted the comments made by Abrams. "I truly believe that the Nasser Family put forth that 100 Anniversary celebration as a Trojan Horse to specifically prove that they could not bring people to the movie theatre," said Muller. "How else would you explain the fact that for 18 years I filled that theatre, all 1,400 seats on Friday and Saturday nights?"

Mat Schuster, owner of Canela Bistro & Wine Bar stated, "Almost every Castro merchant that I have spoken to is in favor of something happening with the Castro Theatre that Another Planet can help with. Everyone that I've talked to is afraid to speak up because they feel that they will be blacklisted by the community."

Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District executive director Andrea Aiello said, "[APE] needs the flexibility to be able to make some money. They are a for-profit company, we are a capitalist society and in order for a business to survive they have to be able to make money."

San Francisco resident M Rocket supported landmarking the seats and said, "Myself and countless others both present and not present today are dedicated to seeing the Castro Theatre remain long after we are on this planet, not Another Planet."

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


Following the commission's vote, Castro Theatre Conservancy executive director Peter Pastreich told the Bay Area Reporter that the results were "kind of disappointing." Pastreich had wanted the 'presence of seating' line clarified to "make clear it's the kind of seating that the architect had in mind and that's really characteristic of the theater."

At the end of the hearing, it appeared that both sides walked away feeling as though they had won partial victories.

APE spokesperson David Perry told Hoodline, “Another Planet Entertainment has always supported the landmarking of the interior of the Castro Theatre and are gratified by today’s unanimous vote to do so. Equally, we acknowledge all who spoke at the hearing both in support of and in opposition to our project. This is good news for all of us who share a passion for saving the Castro Theatre.”

Stephen Torres addressing the commission. | Image: SFGovTV


CQCD co-chair Stephen Torres also shared his support of the vote in a press release. "The staff and advisory board members of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District are very happy that yesterday the Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to expand historic preservation status to the entirety of the Castro Theatre including, among many important components, the rake of the auditorium, the aisles, and the seating."

Ahead of last week's Castro Theatre Coalition town hall, 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.

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Opponents of the proposed plans include the Castro Theatre Coalition which includes the Castro LGBTQ Cultural DistrictCastro MerchantsCastro Theatre ConservancyFrameline Film FestivalFriends of Harvey Milk PlazaHarvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic ClubAlice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic ClubSF HeritageSF 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.]

Earlier this week APE announced a variety of community groups and residents who were in support of its proposed plans including, Frameline Film Festival, SF Gay Men's Chorus, Castro Organ Devotees Association, and Movies For Maniacs.

After the hearing, Koskovich shared his feelings on one flaw in the Landmark Designation Fact Sheet. The commission voted to adopt the fact sheet as the basis for recommending to the Board of Supervisors that the theatre be landmarked.

"The overview of Character-Defining Features at the start of the document does not accurately reflect the actual findings," said Koskovich. "The Statement of Significance clearly indicates that the fixed movie-palace seating in the orchestra of the theater is a character-defining feature both because it marks the space as a movie palace and because it's the place where world-renowned LGBTQ community-building and cultural production have taken place."

The next meeting on the Castro Theatre will tentatively take place on March 15. APE will be requesting a Certificate of Appropriateness from HPC and SF Planning.