How an empty 1970s SF cinema deemed ‘historic’ could undercut housing plans in Stonestown

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San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria transformational development proposal, which calls for 2,930 residential units connected by parks, plazas and pathways, faces a new challenge: an empty movie theater dating back to 1970.

The proposal, which developer Brookfield Properties submitted to the planning department last December after years of community meetings and surveys, would turn much of the mall’s parking lots on the west side into residential space, with a dozen new buildings ranging from three to 18 stories surrounding the mall and acres of open space planned in between.

It would also demolish the theater and build an eight-story, 170-unit apartment building in its place, representing about 6% of planned housing in a project that will help the city meet the state’s mandate to add 82,000 new housing units. ‘by 2030. .

But a debate is brewing over the cinema and how far the developer should go to preserve it, which could cost the project more than 100 housing units, frustrating advocates who say it’s just another hurdle slowing the process. San Francisco’s already arduous housing approval process.

San Francisco is under enormous pressure to deal with its spiraling housing crisis. California officials have launched an unprecedented review to determine why the city issues far fewer housing permits than its peer cities and has the longest time to do so, and why it is the subject of the most complaints from the from Governor Gavin Newsom’s Housing Accountability Unit.

To comply with California environmental law, a handful of older buildings in the Stonestown area that would be altered or demolished as part of the new project were assessed for their historic value. Although the state does not dictate how cities analyze what to preserve, it does require them to do so.

The consultants found that only one building, the United Artists Theater built in 1970, was eligible for listing on the California Historic Resources Registry because of its “new formalist” style of architecture, which the report says is “rare” in San Francisco. The theater has been empty since 2020, when it was closed due to the pandemic.

That determination doesn’t name the theater or place it on the California registry, but it does mean the developers would have to jump through more environmental hoops to tear it down.

Robert Fruchtman, a San Francisco resident who follows housing policy closely and first highlighted the theater issue on Twitterwas frustrated with the idea that something “potentially historic” might create further obstacles for much-needed housing.

“It creates an opportunity for an unused, crumbling theater to be considered a historic structure, even if it’s not benefiting anyone right now,” he said. “Any building could potentially be historic given the right rationale.”

To avoid environmental hoops, the developer came up with alternatives to keep the theater facade intact while building accommodations.

The first alternative preserves the entire theater building and transforms it into only 10 dwellings, which is 160 dwellings less than planned. The other alternative would be to retain the lobby and exterior of the theater but demolish the rear portion, replacing it with one floor of residential units and one floor of residential amenities. This would create 100 units in total, a loss of 70 units from the original plan.

The report also listed a host of other alternatives, but rejected them for different reasons, including community input.

The Historic Preservation Commission, one of the groups that will have to weigh in on the draft environmental impact report before it is certified, held a hearing on Wednesday to get initial feedback on the alternative plans before the developer progress in the drafting of the report. .

At the hearing Commissioner Chris Foley called the 10-unit alternative “pretty ridiculous”.

“When I look at this building, it’s just another old theater that’s pretty much dead,” he said. “We really have to let this developer get this thing approved.”

“We are in a housing crisis. The state told us, the city and county of San Francisco, we have to deliver 82,000 units,” he added. “The only way to solve this problem is not by building a 100-unit building, it’s by these big projects with a real developer who will build.”

But not everyone shared this opinion. Commissioner Kate Black said she felt the theater was, in fact, historically significant.

“I am very convinced that we have few examples of this style of architecture in the city, and this is the only remaining theater by (architect George K. Raad) that has survived, and it is a very good example of this style of architecture,” she says.

She felt that the second alternative – which still builds 100 units – would sufficiently preserve this, although she pushed the planning commission to find more space elsewhere for the 70 units that would be lost under the plan.

“I imagine those 70 units – not easily, but I imagine some units can be picked up elsewhere,” she said.

Commissioners Ruchira Nageswaran and Lydia So have also pushed planners and developers to come up with more alternatives that keep both the housing count and the theater intact, although similar ideas to what they suggested have already been determined as non-viable in the report.

The promoters will choose one of the alternatives to be analyzed in its draft environmental impact report, due early next year. After that, the draft report goes through public review and hearings at planning and historic preservation commissions. Then, the report is adjusted as needed before being certified.

Dan Sider, chief of staff for the planning department, said the final environmental impact report could take anywhere from nine months to more than two years.

But it does not stop there. As the project requires zoning changes, the developer and the city will prepare a development agreement, which the planning commission will also consider. After that, the environmental impact report and the development agreement go to the supervisory board, where it will go through several committees and public hearings.

Commissioner Richard Johns pointed out during the Historic Preservation Commission hearing that this likely means the final decision on the fate of the UA Theater is unlikely to be his.

“Whether this qualifying building should be preserved or not will ultimately, I think, be up to the supervisory board,” he said.

But even if all this is completed, the project is approved and the building permits are issued, there is still no guarantee that construction will start. Parkmerced, for example, which is planned for 5,600 apartments, has still not started construction more than a decade after its approval, as high construction costs stifle ongoing projects.

In the meantime, all theater back and forth is wrong, Fruchtman said.

“There really is no doubt. Both alternatives would prevent the development of 70 to 160 houses on a prime site for more housing,” he said. “What San Francisco really needs on the West Side is more housing, not a preserved 1970 theater.”

Danielle Echeverria is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: danielle.echeverria@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @DanielleEchev

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