The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 6-4 Tuesday to expand the Castro Theatre’s landmark designation to include its interior character-defining features and LGBTQ+ cultural significance – but not its orchestra-level seats, which have been the subject of intense public debate.
Another Planet Entertainment, the theater’s current operator, is planning a $15 million overhaul that includes upgrades to the screen, dressing rooms and ventilation system, as well as the restoration of aging interior features such as the ceiling and chandelier. But Another Planet also wants to level the theater’s raked floor and replace the orchestra-level seats with tiered platforms of removable seats. Such a move has drawn fervent opposition from neighbors, filmmakers, nonprofit leaders and community activists, who argue it will irreparably change the theater’s character.
In May, a board committee approved an amendment that would grant landmark designation to “fixed theatrical seating configured in movie-palace style,” to encompass the orchestra-level seats. The original language protected only the “presence of seating.”
At issue, as queer public historian Gerard Koskovich previously told SFGATE, is that the ambiguity of “presence of seating” could be “taken to represent any kind of seating whatsoever” and would fail to protect the existing orchestra-level seats, which he described as part of the theater’s LGBTQ intangible cultural heritage.
Others, including longtime San Francisco resident Barbara Gersh, a public commenter at one of the Castro Theatre’s last hearings, argued the removal of the seats would be “a final blow to film culture in San Francisco that’s already limping along.”
But on Tuesday, the majority of the board voted against the amendment language that would clearly protect the orchestra-level seats. That group included Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who initially introduced the legislation to expand upon the theater’s landmark status, as well as Supervisors Ahsha Safaí, Joel Engardio, Matt Dorsey, Catherine Stefani and Myrna Melgar. Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Shamann Walton, Dean Preston and Connie Chan dissented, with Peskin stating the decision would be “a rift that will last and will not be healed for a long, long time.” Supervisor Hillary Ronen was not present at the meeting. After the amendment was removed, the board voted 9-1 on the original language, with Peskin in dissent.
David Perry, a spokesperson for Another Planet, considered the decision a victory as the project moves to the next hearing on Thursday with the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission, which will decide whether the Berkeley-based concert promotion company will receive a certificate of appropriateness allowing them to make major changes to the city landmark.
“Everyone who treasures the Castro Theatre, the Castro neighborhood, and the film and LGBTQ programming that is so much a part of both should be grateful tonight,” Perry told SFGATE on Tuesday. “An irreplaceable international icon now has the ability to be preserved, restored and to evolve for this and future generations.”
In April, Another Planet unveiled a community benefits package detailing its newest plans for the Castro Theatre, which pledges that about a third of its programming would be devoted to film screenings and film festivals, while no less than 25% of its programming would be committed to hosting LGBTQ+ activities, artists and events. With just 170 events proposed at the venue per year – a figure that is subject to change or increase, according to Perry – many fear the LGBTQ and film-centered programming that was part of the Castro for decades is in a dire state.
Opponents to Another Planet’s plans remained discouraged and concerned for the future of the theater after Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors vote.
“The Castro Theatre is a beloved landmark and a vital community asset and should be treated as such,” Peter Pastreich, the executive director of the Castro Theatre Conservancy, told SFGATE in a statement. “Today’s vote, indicating the supervisors’ willingness to see San Francisco’s last movie palace desecrated so that a for-profit organization can make more profit, showed a lack of understanding of the Castro Theatre’s broad cultural significance that we very much regret.”
President Jeffrey Kwong of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club also viewed the decision as a step backward.
“When the Castro Theatre was first proposed for landmark status, Harvey Milk understood that landmarks are about bringing neighborhoods together,” Kwong said. “That they are accessible to seniors, to families, to people with disabilities, and people from all walks of life. That they must be considered in the context of history and cultural heritage, not economic opportunism. Today’s vote is a departure from that sentiment, in service of a corporation that has stoked division among our community during a moment of fragility.”
Stephen Torres, speaking on behalf of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District, did not mince words about his disappointment, but remains determined to protect the theater’s legacy.
“The Castro LGBTQ Cultural District takes seriously its role in the preservation of our cultural and historic legacy – especially in times when safe spaces for the LGBTQ community, especially our most vulnerable, are disappearing,” Torres said. “Although we are disappointed that the Board of Supervisors did not take this opportunity to mandate proper stewardship over a threatened community asset, we will continue to support the broad coalition of community stakeholders as they seek to ensure that community self determination. We are grateful to the supervisors who have stood by our position.”
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Commission will hold a joint hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m. that could determine just how far Another Planet could go in its proposed changes to the theater, considering the legislation, the certificate of appropriateness, and conditional use authorization applications.
Source : SFGATE