Saturday, March 12, 2005

"Excitement" in D5: saving the Harding Theater

David Tornheim can feel the excitement. From the March Western Edition of the SF Observer: "Once they[people in the neighborhood] became familiar with the fact that it was a theater, and it was historical and the interior was in good shape, they got more excited than if they thought it was some old building."

Yes, the Harding Theater is---or a long time ago, was---as the name implies, a theater. But just being old doesn't make a building "historical." And, judging from the picture accompanying the Observer article, the interior of the Harding is undistinguished at best. It's now just an old building that was a theater 40 years ago (when I lived nearby on Golden Gate Ave. in 1962, a group was doing Gilbert and Sullivan productions in the Harding, but I was too young and callow to attend any performances. I got a hint of what I missed only when I saw Mike Leigh's wonderful "Topsy Turvy" many years later).

But Tornheim tells us that there's even more excitement about the Harding: "This is something that's totally galvanized the local merchants, they're really excited and involved...Ross[Mirkarimi] is excited, he didn't think the merchants really had this sense that they were all part of an entity and a group, and now they're talking to each other frequently and building this camaraderie."

Okay, people in the neighborhood are excited, Ross is excited, and local merchants are excited. But do we really want local merchants "talking to each other"? Next thing you know, they'll be forming a Haight-Divisadero Neighbors and Merchants Association or something.

At last Thursday night's Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council meeting, Supervisor Mirkarimi talked about next Tuesday's hearing on the Harding Theater issue. He wasn't sure he had the votes necessary to send it back to the Planning Dept. for a CEQA review of the building's alleged historical significance to save it from the wrecking ball.

Maybe 18 upscale condos isn't the best possible use of the Harding site, given the always worrisome gentrification trends in the city. But the last thing that stretch of the Divisadero corridor should be worrying about now is gentrification, since the area is more or less blighted commercially, with a number of empty store fronts between Hayes St. and Golden Gate Ave. The Divisadero neighborhood actually needs a little gentrifying. 

Thursday night Ross mentioned rather wistfully the notion of turning the Harding site into some kind of community center facility, but that begs a lot of questions. The folks who want to build the condos still own the Harding. Do Jim Siegel and others really have enough money to buy and rehab the building and make it into a commercially viable operation? If they don't, there's no point in saving the Harding, since it seems to have little historical or architectural significance.

Ross warned HANC members Thursday night that he doesn't want to end up with nothing but a derelict Harding Theater "if we don't get our way" on the issue. He pointed out that the Harding theater "looks terrible" from the street. In short, the neighborhood will have to live with condos on the site if he can't get the votes.

This is a skill that Supervisor Mirkarimi should cultivate early in his four-year term---speaking truth to the powerless. He also reminded the HANC gathering that the Golden Gate Park underground garage is a done deal, a reality some still haven't come to terms with. As supervisor, Mirkarimi seems to understand that he not only needs to reflect community sentiment, but, when necessary, also provide his constituents with a much-needed reality-check.

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