Through its many incarnations, the Strand Theatre has become a near-perfect symbol of transitions on Market Street. It hosted stage productions from 1917 until 1977, first as part of a chain run by vaudeville showman Sidney Grauman, and later under the auspice of Westside Theatre Company. In the 1990s it screened porn movies and became a den for pimps and crack dealers, who streamed in each night to accost the clientele. A police vice squad raided the building in 2003. It was boarded up for years. The walls crumbled, the roof caved, and rain puddled beneath the rotting seats. The ground floor became a bird graveyard, the upstairs a homeless encampment. Squatters decorated the walls with spray-painted messages: "Junkies for Life," and "RIP Danny Boy."
Then, in 2010, Carey Perloff set her eyes on the dilapidated building. Perloff was searching Market Street for space to expand the American Conservatory Theater, where she serves as artistic director. Like much of the surrounding neighborhood, it seemed ripe for renovation.
ACT purchased the building for $4 million, subjected it to a $32.5 million restoration effort, and rendered it the crown jewel of a new Mid-Market development. The new Strand is slated to open in January 2015, and Perloff hopes it will not only bejewel, but also animate, a traditionally blighted area. Large video screens in the lobby will show student films, or simulcast performances from inside the theater, while the windows above will allow a new generation of theater-goers to gaze over City Hall.
"I think it will really anchor this street, and sort of light it up in a way that will really change Market Street," Perloff says, blue eyes twinkling as she gestures over the steep-banked venue, its aisles still strewn with cement chips and broken chairs. Perhaps if the Strand is really successful, it can even appeal to a new generation of adults with disposable income that sits within spitting distance, and that's become a sort of White Whale for San Francisco arts institutions: The Twitter crowd. Once an old dynasty of angel donors dies out, theater companies will need to convert members of the smartphone generation into patrons.
Perloff has her doubts. "It's definitely — complicated," she says, pausing a beat as though looking for a more politic word. "Those companies, you know, they work 18-hour days. And they as of yet aren't particularly integrated into the city. You know Twitter's up on the ninth floor and you don't get much sense of it from down below." She brightens. "I don't think they get exactly what it is yet, but I think when it's here, they'll love it."
In other words, Perloff believes that if you build it, maybe they'll come. That notion is so integral to the new Mid-Market corridor that it's all but embedded in the city's marketing credos.
On the eve of its estimated $15 billion IPO, Twitter has transformed San Francisco's downtown retail corridor. It's also transformed city tax policies. In 2011, then-interim Mayor Ed Lee enacted the "Twitter tax break," designed to give companies throughout Mid-Market a six-year reprieve from payroll taxes on new hires. Though the law ended up benefitting many retail outlets, hotels, and craft coffee shops that descended on the area, it originally served as a carrot to keep Twitter in San Francisco. A year later Lee and his billionaire benefactor, Ron Conway, pushed a new payroll tax to voters. When the new initiative takes effect next year, San Francisco will tax companies based on their gross receipts, rather than the size of their workforce. It will bolster tech start-ups — which have large payrolls, light overhead, and little revenue — at the expense of other industries.
Yet Twitter and the various tech companies to follow — the social network Yammer, the interior decorating site One Kings Lane, and the software company ZenDesk — also changed Mid-Market indelibly when they moved into a giant Art Deco building at 1355 Market St., now rechristened Market Square. Another crop of them recently descended on a newly renovated high-rise at 1455 Market St., now home to mobile payments company Square, Inc. and the ride-share start-up Uber, which shunted its headquarters there after signing a lease in July. Those changes led real estate experts to dub Market Street the epicenter of a new San Francisco land-grab, a title formerly bestowed on SOMA.
In the past year alone, property values have soared; Perloff says that within months of ACT's $4 million Strand purchase, the adjacent lot sold for $8 million, to a condo developer. Once the domain of greasy spoons, drug dealers, and funky arts nonprofits, the blocks between Powell Street and Civic Center BART stations now harbor Michelin Star restaurants, artisanal cafes, swanky health food stores, and luxury apartments where a two-bedroom can rent for up to $4,700 a month.
It's a rather precarious place to groom an arts district, given Perloff's observation that tech employees haven't traditionally patronized the arts. And yet art is a cornerstone of the Mid-Market campaign; amid the Strand resurrection ACT also opened a new stage in its costume shop next door, while SFMOMA launched a massive expansion to triple its gallery space. Even if that's all just a fig leaf to cover up what's actually a lucrative tech development, many arts organizations have bought into the city's plans on the belief that they, too, will benefit from urban revitalization.
San Francisco is abstractly interested in caring for its old arts institutions, and it generally pins revitalization efforts around them. That's what it did with the ill-fated Fillmore Jazz District, the more promising classical music halls at Civic Center, and all previous attempts to inject life into Mid-Market — most of which revolved around creating a "theater district." Just as jazz helped sell a Fillmore revitalization plan that flopped, theater is part and parcel of the image being cultivated for the downtown corridor. It's San Francisco's latest attempt to use history opportunistically, as a way to attract modernity.
"It wasn't Twitter that revitalized Market Street," Lee insisted, holding court at Strand Theatre's ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. "It was the arts organizations. We talk a lot about technology in the city, but technology cannot live without the arts."