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Feud over San Francisco theater endangers housing plans

The Alexandria Theater sits idle at Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue in San Francisco in 2004. | Source: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A feud between a property developer and a city official may squash housing plans for a dilapidated old San Francisco movie theater.

The conflict centers on a local supervisor’s plan to designate the Alexandria Theater as a historic landmark, which the property owner says will cause development costs to skyrocket, making it impossible to complete the project—and leaving the theater in its blighted condition.

Development plans for the theater have fallen through before. Now the city and restoration advocates are seething at the thought of the failure of another project that could transform the theater into much-needed San Francisco housing if completed.

'No Viable Use for This Property'

Developer and owner TimeSpace Alexandria plans to build 74 homes inside the former theater with retail space on the ground floor. The owner would also restore the theater’s iconic sign, marquee and entryway. TimeSpace has yet to file an official planning application with the city but sent early-stage plans to Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the area, in April.

Supervisor Connie Chan speaks on McAllister Street in front of the San Francisco Superior Courthouse in 2022. | Source: Ekevara Kitpowsong

The Board of Supervisors called on the theater owner to keep the building’s “physical structure” and “generally all of its particular exterior features, including the features described as the blade sign, the marquee, the chandelier, and the murals” through a resolution in March; however, it is not legally binding.

This mural in an Alexandria Theater auditorium, pictured in February 2004, is just one example of the building's artwork. | Source: Courtesy of Phatongroup/WNP

Spearheading the historic landmark ruling, Chan also criticized the owner's plans for not including enough affordable housing in a letter to the developer’s attorney—the project currently lists nine of the 74 homes as affordable.

Nick Colla, the attorney representing the owner, said landmark status would require the owners to restore much of the theater to its original condition, making it difficult and costly to make the extensive changes needed to build the housing. 

“Moving forward with landmarking will ensure no viable use for this property,” Colla said.

The Planning Department has rebuffed Colla’s concerns. 

The department’s chief of staff, Dan Sider said the concerns are premature and a final decision to make the building a historic landmark would need to be signed off by the Historic Preservation Commission, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors; this hasn’t happened yet.

'Let’s Get It Done'

The shuttered Alexandria Theater has long been an eyesore for the Richmond District. Located at Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue, it has sat vacant since shutting down in 2004 and without upkeep, its condition has deteriorated, attracting graffiti, dumping and overall blight.

Graffiti mars the closed Alexandria Theater on Geary Boulevard in 2014. | Source: Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“The Alexandria Theater property owners have not been good neighbors to the Richmond, leaving the theater as a blight to our neighborhood and [having] very little care for the theater's treasured history,” Chan said in an email.

The city’s planning department issued a citation to the owners on Feb. 27 for “general negligence of maintaining and upkeeping” of the theater. The citation calls for the developer to provide security and regular maintenance of the parking lot and the theater building to prevent any vandalism of the theater interior until its redevelopment is complete.

Boarded-up ticket windows and front entrance are seen at the closed Alexandria Theater on Geary Boulevard in May 2014. | Source: Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“[The owner] clearly reneged on their basic responsibilities to the neighborhood and to the city to maintain the building in a safe fashion,” Sider said.

Woody LaBounty, head of San Francisco Heritage, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve San Francisco’s unique architecture, said his organization has pushed for the theater's redevelopment for at least 15 years. The local historian said he’s tired of seeing the Alexandria Theater in a state of disrepair and wants to see it redeveloped.

Woody LaBounty, a Richmond district resident and San Francisco historian, poses for a portrait outside the historic Alexandria Theater on Jan. 23, 2023. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

“Everybody wants them to succeed,” LaBounty said. “We want that place to be revitalized. Let’s get it done.”

Best-Laid Plans

The history of best-laid plans for the Alexandria Theater falling short stretches back to 2013.

On top of getting approval to build condos on the theater’s old parking lot, the current owners also cleared plans in 2019 with the city to turn the theater into a swimming center with office space and after-school programs. While the condos were built, the other plans never materialized.

LaBounty criticized TimeSpace for not following through on the swim center after the condos were completed. The condo project was not contingent on restoring the theater, according to Sider. 

“The whole idea was housing in the back, and swim center in the front,” LaBounty said. “At what point are we supposed to believe that the owners don’t have the money to build it because it’s a historic landmark? The owners have had two approved projects, and they haven’t done anything.”

But Colla shot back over email, blaming the city for a two-year timeline to get approvals for work on the theater building. Shortly after plans were greenlighted in June 2019, the pandemic’s arrival further upended development plans, he said.

Plans from 2013 to build a full-service restaurant on the second floor and retail space on the ground floor also fell through. The theater belonged to a different owner at the time.

Correction: A caption in this article has been updated to give the correct cross streets for the theater.