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Arts & Entertainment

San Francisco Castro Theatre gets OK for booze service, flexible seats

The Castro Theatre’s orchestra seats and stage on June 2, 2023 | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The San Francisco Planning and Historic Preservation Commissions put a bow on future plans for the landmark Castro Theatre on Thursday, approving two major changes to the historic movie palace during a marathon eight-hour session. 

The plans include renovating the interior, including replacing fixed cinema-style seating with flexible seating and expanding nighttime entertainment and bar uses, which would allow the venue to host other public performances and private events.

In the end, the Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved the renovations and the Planning Commission approved the use expansion by a vote of 4-2. But the saga is likely far from over and appeals of the use expansion are likely. 

The vote was the latest development in an epic yearlong legislative fight over proposed changes to the beloved single-screen theater. Opposition to modifications desired by the theater’s new promoter, Another Planet Entertainment, first flared up in January 2022, when an open letter from the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District led to a raucous town hall at the theater the following August. 

Much of that Hollywood drama went down at the Board of Supervisors, where President Aaron Peskin championed opponents’ concerns. But the board finally let the modified seating plan go forward on June 6, with Peskin left as the lone dissenting vote, recalling Jet Li’s death scene in the film Hero

The seating changes are part of a package of amendments to the Castro’s landmark status sponsored by the theater’s home supervisor, Rafael Mandelman, and approved by both the Planning and Historic Preservation Commissions in previous votes. 

The Castro Theatre in San Francisco | Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The meeting featured a four-hour public comment period where supporters of Another Planet’s plans outnumbered opponents by 2 to 1. 

Jon Larner, an operating partner in the Swedish American Hall and Cafe du Nord, told commissioners that he felt Another Planet was “perfectly suited to keeping the Castro Theatre as an amazing historic landmark as well as a great venue for all its intended uses.” 

Lee Hepner, a former Peskin aide, spoke against Another Planet, calling its treatment of community concerns disappointing.

During deliberations, Historic Preservation Commissioner Lydia So said she was “confident and happy” with community accountability and accessibility provisions in Another Planet’s plans. 

Meanwhile, Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore questioned what she called the “philosophical framework” behind the preservation components of the plans, rhetorically asking “why the Colosseum in Rome had not been converted into a skating rink.”

Commissioners deliberated into the evening over additional conditions for allowing the additional uses; among those approved are mandates that the Castro show films at least 75 days per year; that open-to-the-public events be held at least 90 days per year; that 25% of events be related to the LGBTQIA+ community; and that Another Planet hold ongoing meetings with community groups for guidance in managing the theater and make good faith efforts to use local suppliers for concessions. 

Commissioner Sue Diamond praised the agreed-upon conditions for “greatly increasing public access to the theater,” while Moore declared them disappointing. Moore voted to oppose the use expansion, along with Planning Commissioner Theresa Imperial. 

Sources inside City Hall on both sides of issues around the Castro Theatre have told The Standard that they “would not be surprised” if the use expansions approved by the Planning Commission Thursday were appealed back to the Board of Supervisors—meaning that there will be sequels to this bureaucratic blockbuster.