Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Politics & Govt
Published on April 18, 2023
Supervisors' committee approves protecting Castro Theatre's fixed seating citing Another Planet's failure to upgrade city-owned venue [Updated]Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline

On Monday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee took an initial vote to protect the historic Castro Theatre's fixed seating.

In a 2-1 vote, the committee voted to change the language in the Landmark Designation Fact Sheet from "presence of seating" to "fixed theatrical seating configured in movie-palace style."

Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Dean Preston, who proposed the amendment, voted in support and Supervisor Myrna Melgar was the lone dissenting vote. The vote comes two weeks after the committee continued its decision in search of a compromise.

The amendment will be read one more time at the next Land Use Committee meeting on April 24 before moving on to the full Board of Supervisors. Hoodline reached out to Another Planet Entertainment (APE) for comment but did not receive a response.

Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Last May, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman proposed the update to the landmark designation to include "the full historical, architectural, aesthetic, and cultural interest and value of the Castro Theatre."

In February, the SF Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) recommended the expansion of the Castro Theatre's landmark designation. The Castro Theatre was officially designated as San Francisco Landmark #100 on September 3, 1977.

At Monday's meeting, Mandelman led off the discussion with an update about negotiations between APE and theatre advocates including the Castro Theatre Conservancy and Castro LGBTQ Cultural District. [Full disclosure: Steven Bracco, Hoodline's Castro reporter, is a board member of the CQCD and member of the Castro Theatre Coalition.]

It's been over a year since APE has taken over the programming of the 100-year-old Castro Theatre, while ownership remains with the Nasser family and Bay Properties Inc.

APE has proposed much-needed renovations of the neglected Castro Theatre, along with removing the orchestra-level seating and replacing them with four-tiered sections of platforms with removable seats.

Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


"I am, unfortunately, sad to report we have not had luck in those negotiations," said Mandelman. "Although there were moments in the last several weeks, both sides in my view have done things and taken positions that ensure there would not be one at least not for now."

"Ultimately even if made, it is not clear the amendment would prevent the city approving or APE not moving forward with their plans for the theater," added Mandelman. At this time it's unclear if the amendment change will effect APE's plans to remove the orchestra-level seating and install four tiers with removable seats.

Mandelman recommended that the amendment not be made to the Landmark Designation.

"I regret that the [Castro Theatre] conservancy and APE have not been able to make an agreement ensuring the conservancy a role in the continued showing of film at the theater," said Mandelman. "Such a commitment would dramatically reduce the likelihood of APE's plans being bogged down in litigation, which is not my desire."

"I do not believe this board should second guess or alter the work of planning staff," Mandelman explained in reference to the Planning Department's report prepared for HPC.

Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Public comment on the issue lasted nearly two and half hours with a packed hearing room at City Hall. At the outset, Supervisor Melgar reduced each speaker's comments from two to one minute.

Speakers in support of APE's plans included co-owner of the theatre Elaine Nasser Padian, First Lady of the Castro Donna Sachet, Hi Tops co-owner Jesse Woodward, Lobby Bar co-owner Blake Seely, Cliff's Variety co-owner Terry Asten Bennett, Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District (Castro CBD) board member Ralph Hibbs, former Castro Merchants president and MX-3 co-owner Dave Karraker, and Castro resident and Castro CBD committee member Joe Sangirardi.

"Please do not tie our hands for years to come, but allow APE’s plans to move forward to benefit the neighbors and all merchants,” said Nasser Padian.

"I'm very concerned about our neighborhood — our neighborhood has been in a mood for decades," said Sangirardi. "Supervisor Peskin issued somewhat of a challenge at the last Land Use Committee meeting asking for community feedback."

Sangirardi stated several neighborhood groups have supported APE's plans including Castro Merchants, Castro CBD, and Eureka Valley Neighborhood Association. Earlier this month, the Castro Merchants voted to conditionally support the plans pending an economic impact report and good faith negotiations.

Castro Merchants board member Terry Beswick shared that as of the hearing that those conditions had not been met.

"Locking this building into a specific use to support a dying movie theater industry is chaos," said Karraker. "If you do this, and I work blocks away, I can guarantee you the Nasser family will board it up. Let it evolve with the young diverse multicultural community that is the future of the Castro."

Photo: Joe Sangirardi/Twitter


At the hearing, Hibbs again stated that over 100 businesses had signed on to a Castro CBD petition in support of APE.

In a press release today, the full list of businesses was shared but the names of the petition signers were not included.

However, Eureka Sky owner Ray Connolly shared the entire list with signatures in a letter to the committee before Monday's meeting. Due to concerns over safety, Hoodline will not publish the names of the petition signers. "They are uniformly afraid of repercussions to their person and businesses from opponents to APE's plans," explained Hibbs.

Speakers in support of the language change included CQCD district director Tina Valentin Aguirre, gay public historian Gerard Koskovich, SF Heritage's Christine Madrid French, CQCD co-chairs Stephen Torres and Jen Reck, and Michael Petrelis (as Francis Ford Coppola).

"We remain very disappointed APE has not reached out directly to me as the lead staff member of the organization," said Aguirre. "This represents erasure of a legislative body, the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, and myself, as a transgender person of color. I appreciate what you are moving today [the amendment] and urge you to move it forward."

"The phrase 'presence of seating' is not merely unacceptably vague on its face," said Koskovich. "I’m concerned because this wording was proposed by Another Planet Entertainment, the current leaseholder for the Castro Theatre."

"APE is on record as seeking to destroy the historic configuration of the orchestra," added Koskovich. "The phrase 'presence of seating' therefore represents an effort to undermine the
landmark protection."

"I want to make everyone who supports fixed seating an offer they cannot refuse," said Petrelis. "If you support fixed seating, I'm gonna give you a free cannoli the next time you come to Cafe Zoetrope in North Beach."

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


After public comment, Peskin shared that he had been involved with negotiations between APE and theatre advocates. "APE has frankly stonewalled," said Peskin.

Peskin also questioned why APE had not entered into an enforceable agreement with theatre advocates. Peskin also revealed that APE had not followed through on its promises to renovate the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Owned by the City and County of San Francisco, APE became the leaseholder in 2010.

According to a press release shared yesterday, "APE was required to perform interior renovations and improvements, at a minimum cost of over $10 million." Improvements to the auditorium were to include upgrades to the elevators, main arena, and Polk Hall Club over a phased 40-month period.

An amendment to the lease in March 2017 stated APE had been granted several extensions and "performed $564,475 of the agreed upon required improvements.” "APE has yet to fully perform its obligations or seek a further extension, and that at least $4 million in renovations remain outstanding."

"I think this behavior over the last 13 years is a reasonable indicator of future behavior," said Peskin.

Four of the proposed seating options at the Castro Theatre. | Photo: Steven Bracco/Hoodline


Melgar spoke against adding the proposed language stating, "I don't see putting, making the seats also, adding that to the historic preservation commission's standing of what is going on in the theater, that that's the cure for this."

"I will not support the amendment of Supervisor Preston because we need to be as flexible as possible so a business enterprise can continue on that commercial corridor. It is time right now to be supporting ways to provide the most flexibility and the widest array of programming," added Melgar.

However, when it came it programming at the Castro Theatre, which has been dark since January 28, Melgar was in agreement with Peskin. "I, like you, would like to see some [memorandum of understanding] or agreement to provide film on a consistent regular basis," said Melgar.

Preston was confused by APE and its advocates who support the interior landmarking update but are not supporting the amendment.

"I would urge Another Planet and folks organizing around this issue to recognize we have the same goal here and it's possible to have this amendment, carry out the intent of the HPC and ensure the success of the Castro Theatre," said Preston.

The issue will come before the Land Use Committee again next week because it is "substantive enough of an amendment to require a second vote before it goes before the whole board," explained Preston. The vote to take a second vote passed unanimously.

Update, 7 p.m.

After publication, APE spokesperson David Perry responded to the claims about Bill Graham Civic Auditorium:

“Another Planet Entertainment stands behind and is proud of its work activating and maintaining the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Over the past 13 years, Another Planet has spent over 10.3 million dollars on the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium: $7,000,000 in capital improvements to the facility in coordination and with the consent of our landlord and the building's owner, the City & County of San Francisco, as well as over $3,300,000 in repairs and maintenance, including during the three years of the unprecedented COVID pandemic.  Another Planet’s current and past agreements to operate and invest in the facility were fully reviewed by and approved by the Board of Supervisors. We look forward to continuing that successful partnership in accordance with those agreements."

Update, 11 p.m.

In response to APE spokesperson David Perry's statement, Supervisor Aaron Peskin shared emails he received from Claudia Gorham, the city's deputy managing director of the Real Estate Division.

Gorham confirmed that APE was credited in 2014 for capital improvements to Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. "We agreed to the $564,475 as a compromise as we negotiated the Amendment to the Lease – APE desired to be credited $1,279,000 with an additional $400,000 in administrative costs in its attempt to obtain new market and historic tax credits," explained Gorham.

Gorham shared that $6.25 million in improvements have been made to the main arena and elevators. According to Gorham, an additional $4 million in improvements to the Polk Hall Club have not been completed. APE originally planned to spend between $20-25 in improvements on the hall but reduced the total cost down to $4 million.

"On October 11, 2022, I received an email from APE’s VP and they are working on a revised plan – which incorporates a few improvements to Polk Hall but more improvements to the Main Arena as their plan for a small venue site for Polk Hall was too expensive," explained Gorham.