Saturday, November 22, 2008

Put-up-or-shut-up time on the Harding Theater

It may be good news for the neighborhood that the city's "theater community" is intervening in the Harding Theater issue at this stage of the process. Where were they four years ago, when the owner of the eyesore first proposed to convert the old theater property to condos and retail space? Reading the communication below, one would think the issue just popped up on the viewscreens of city preservationists. The upbeat prose of the press release doesn't tell us whether the neighborhood can really expect that something will finally be done with the property, though there is an implied promise:

In the meantime, a recently formed group, The Friends of Harding, will continue its work to assemble members of the performing arts community. The group will do further outreach to work towards alternative win-win strategies with the owner, foundations, nonprofits, public and private funding sources. These strategies would protect, retain and make full use this historic theater resource---and resume its long established use as public gathering and community space.

What these folks need to "assemble" is enough money to buy the property from the owner, who, after being jerked around by the city for years, has given up on developing the property. He's put a $4 million price tag on it, and that of course doesn't include the cost of restoring the theater to make it functional. And, by the way, the Harding has never really been a "public gathering and community space." It was a theater, then a church, and then---as it is now---a seemingly permanent blot in the middle of the neighborhood's commercial strip.

If they can, at long last, raise enough money to buy and restore the theater, good for them and good for the neighborhood. But we've heard these noises before, when early in Supervisor Mirkarimi's first term, he warned David Tornheim and his group of obstructionists/preservationists that he didn't want to stop the developer's plans and end up with nothing but a derelict old building. That's exactly what he/we have ended up with, because the opponents of the development had no money to propose a realistic alternative; they just wanted to save a theater where the Grateful Dead once performed.

From: savedivistheater@gmail.com
Sent: Friday , November 14, 2008
To: PROSF
Subject: Harding Theater Given Another Chance
Harding Theater Given Another Chance

On November 13, 2008, all seven members of the San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously approved an appeal by The Friends of 1800 historical preservation group regarding a developer’s plans to demolish the back portion of the Harding Theater to build condominiums and make substantial modifications to the remainder. The Planning Department is, therefore, required to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to assess impacts to this historic resource by the plan and propose mitigation measures and alternatives with lesser impacts.

Planning Commissioner Sugaya made the motion that was approved and spoke at length about concerns that the developer’s plans had numerous irreversible impacts, that the Planning Department had failed to consider impacts to its use as a performance theater (the Planning Department only considered impacts for movie use) and that impacts to acoustics had not been considered.

The development project would remove the performance stage, wings, fly and curtain system, orchestra pit, dressing rooms and vintage seats; the raked floor would be removed and flattened; organ grills, front stairways, plasterwork and entrance would be impacted; an emergency exit blocked off; windows and skylight would penetrate the roof and sides of the building.

The Commissioners were not convinced by Planning Department assertions that impacts on historic features were reversible. Commissioner Sugaya said, "If you remove the seats and raked floor and build a new floor, no one is going to pay to remove the new floor and reconstruct the old seating. That’s not realistic."

Dozens of community members, prominent theater professionals and historic preservationists voiced concerns at the two hour hearing--including directors and advocates from Theater Bay Area, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Brava Theater, Magic Theater, Metro Theatre Center Foundation, Garage Theater and The Independent.

Theater leaders expressed an interest in potentially using the theater, and told the Commission that mid-sized theaters such as the Harding are rare. They also expressed concerns that construction and demolition plans would render the theater unusable for performance use.

The developers can appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors.

In the meantime, a recently formed group, The Friends of Harding, will continue its work to assemble members of the performing arts community. The group will do further outreach to work towards alternative win-win strategies with the owner, foundations, nonprofits, public and private funding sources. These strategies would protect, retain and make full use this historic theater resource---and resume its long established use as public gathering and community space.

The developer has just announced intentions to sell the building for $4 Million, an opportunity for the community, theater, film and cultural groups to raise funds to create a viable landmark theater for the Divisadero corridor.

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