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Arts & Entertainment

$40M plan to bring a new theater, arts center to San Francisco’s Chinatown

Pedestrians stroll through North Beach toward Chinatown on Nov. 21, 2022. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

In the next few years, San Francisco’s Chinatown may see the construction of a brand-new landmark called Edge on the Square, a center for Asian American arts and culture.

The ambitious plan, with a price tag of $40 million, started back in 2019 as a coalition of community-based nonprofits who envision a massive new home tasked with uplifting Asian American storytelling.

At the corner of Clay Street and Grant Avenue, the future cultural center takes its name from Portsmouth Square, known as Chinatown’s “living room." 

Now, the project is moving full speed ahead as the money is pouring in. It has officially named a new executive director, Joanne Lee, a long-time staffer at the Chinatown Community Development Center who later worked for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Joanne Lee speaks at an event on Aug. 17 announcing she is the new executive director of Edge on the Square. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Even though Lee only started the job in August and the project is still in its infancy, she already has a big vision.

“I'm continuing to develop the programs for Edge on the Square engaging the public,” Lee said, “to both build our brand and our visibility to attract visitors and residents, and to be an economic catalyst for Chinatown.”

Next month, Edge on the Square will host its second annual contemporary art festival in Chinatown. A year ago, it drew 4,000 people to Chinatown, according to Lee.

Where Is the Money From?

The $40 million project has largely been supported by the government, in particular some $26.5 million in pandemic-era funding from Sacramento. The federal government and the city also chipped in about $2.5 million and $1 million each.

Phil Ting, the Chinese American assemblyman who spearheaded the funding from the state, said this project is the first community hub of its kind that will make social changes through the arts.

“Edge on the Square is ideally positioned to be a nexus of creative energy and racial justice," Ting said. "I’m excited to see it bring this community together.”

Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has also aided the project.

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi speaks during the announcement of the new executive director of Edge on the Square on Aug. 17. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“I have so much respect for the approach that you have taken,” Pelosi said in a celebration event at the site of Edge on the Square. “Arts do bring people together. We forget our differences, and we laugh, inspire, cry together.”

Lee said now she will focus more on foundations, philanthropists and individual donors as new sources of funding to get the additional $10 million. The building site at 800 Clay St. was purchased in 2021 for an undisclosed amount.

Imagining a Landmark

In imagining the building, Lee said there will be museum-like spaces to showcase artwork, rooms for community engagement programming, an advanced theater with interactive technology for live performances and office space for staff.

It’s a grand ambition, one full of possibilities and unknowns alike, she said. In her philosophy, the building is to serve the community, so the organization has to figure out what the community wants first.

The current Edge on the Square will be demolished to make way for the new building. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“Programs and services lead the design, right?” Lee said. “Not the other way around.”

Lee admits that the outreach effort may be challenging in Chinatown, as traditionally, cultural facilities are not always welcomed by low-income families, immigrants and people of color “who may not have grown up going to museums.”

To that end, Edge on the Square has already hired an architecture firm and will soon start working with a general contractor.

Talking about the timeline, Lee said that a grand opening within five years is a realistic assessment.

“I do hope that we are open by then,” she said, “and hopefully less than that.”