Skip to main content

Why this blighted theater sits empty after 17 years

A closed, blighted movie theater is seen in a photo.
The Tower Theater at 2465 Mission St. has been empty for 17 years. Its fate remains uncertain. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

As the Tower Theater’s corroded marquee scene loomed overhead, Alex Collins looked at the decrepit single-screen movie palace on Mission Street, its entrance boarded up and the scaffolding of its vertical sign visible.

“It’s terrible,” said Collins, who used to live blocks from the historic theater. “It’s just plastered with graffiti.”

First opened as the Majestic Theatre in 1912, the theater closed in 1996 and was used as a church until around 2007, according to Hoodline. But since then, the building has sat empty for 17 years, city records show. 

A man stands in front of a ruined movie theater.
Alex Collins stands outside the Tower Theater on Wednesday. Collins said the state of the blighted theater is “terrible”: “It’s just plastered with graffiti.” | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Over the years, multiple plans have been proposed for the theater, located at 2465 Mission St. between 20th and 21st streets, but none of them ever materialized. Now, after the structural engineer for the most recent plan went to prison—disgraced former city official Rodrigo Santos—and one of the two property owners died, the ruined theater’s future is uncertain.

“There’s no plans right now for the Tower Theater,” said Robert Cort, who co-owned the property with his mother, Vera Cort, until her death last month at age 82. “I’m not developing anything there. I’m just hoping someone will lease it and fill the space.”

Despite Cort’s hopes that someone will lease the property, he admitted it isn’t listed on the rental market. There are no listings online for the property. When The Standard visited the site on Wednesday, there were no signs advertising the space as available for lease.

Cort said that dealing with his late mother’s estate left him no time to sign a listing agreement for the theater.

“There’s just so much going on,” he said.

An archived photo shows the exterior of the Tower Theater in the 1970s.
A city bus passes the Tower Theater on Mission Street near 20th Street in 1970. | Source: Courtesy OpenSFHistory

The latest redevelopment plans for the theater were filed in 2017 when the building was set to be transformed into a City College film school and theater. But officials say those plans have stalled. 

The project was spearheaded by Santos, who is serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to fraud and tax evasion charges.

The architecture firm behind the theater restoration plan also appears defunct—Leonardo Zylberberg Architect’s website does not work, and the listed phone number is disconnected. Attempts to reach Zylberberg went unanswered. City College did not return The Standard’s request for comment.

Planning Department Chief of Staff Dan Sider said the project had been held up since 2019, when the department asked the late Cort to change the plans to preserve a mural inside the former theater and restore its marquee sign. Sider said if the two revisions had been made to the plans, they might have been approved. 

“If the new owner is willing, we would be eager to move the project forward,” Sider said.

But Robert Cort said he doesn’t think a movie theater plan is viable, although he’s still open to the idea.

“No one’s renting [commercial] spaces anymore; just look at Union Square,” Cort said. “Plus, there’s Netflix.”

People walk in front of a ruined movie theater.
People walk past the long-closed Tower Theater on Wednesday. There are no plans to adapt the former theater to other uses, and its fate is uncertain. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Cort said dozens of people had approached him over the past decade to rent out the theater, often for restaurants, but that after referring them to the city, he stopped hearing from them. 

Previous plans submitted to the city include a restaurant, nightclub, beer hall, and senior housing; none of them went beyond early-stage meetings with city planners.

Passersby pitched ideas for what the old building should be used for. Several people said they’d like another movie theater to open there—even though there’s an Alamo Drafthouse just a block away

“I’d be pretty dope if it was a theater again,” said Oscar Gutierrez, who was born and raised in the Mission. “If seats over there are packed, people could come here.”

Outside the theater, Collins agreed, saying that the Alamo Drafthouse blueprint of a restaurant theater could work.

Luis Janez has lived in the area for 30 years and would welcome a nightclub or sports bar. 

A man stands in front of a ruined theater.
Luis Janez passes by the closed-down Tower Theater on Mission Street on Wednesday. | Source: Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Like those passing by, Cort seems open to pretty much anything.

“It’s not really about what I want,” Cort said. “I just want to fill the building.”