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Blight Friction 

Making a decrepit ex-theater into new housing spawns unrealistic opposition in grimy Lower Haight

Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
Just after dark, crowds begin to gather in the many bars and eateries that line Haight Street between Fillmore and Steiner. Molotov's, the Horse Shoe Coffee House, Noc Noc, Toronado, Mad Dog in the Fog, Hanabi Japanese Restaurant, Pasta Pomodoro, and Ali Baba's Cave Cafe and Restaurant are lit up, doors wide open. But the light coming from the restaurants and bars illuminates stained sidewalks that badly need washing, littered with paper cups, empty liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and even a threadbare suitcase.

In front of a boarded-up building squeezed between the Horse Shoe and the gated Peacock Lounge, a homeless woman has parked her cart of belongings and stands watching passers-by. She's settled in front of 560 Haight, a building that's now the talk of the neighborhood: Developers have recently purchased it to convert into condominiums.

An anti-condo neighborhood group has gathered petition letters, lobbied the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Willie Brown, protested to the Planning Department, and appealed the building permits granted to the developers. Group members say they want to see the building converted into a community center/performing arts theater, and their efforts have successfully stalled the development, even though no funding has been obtained for a community center.

An equally spirited group, many of them property owners, are siding with the developers. They've mounted a counter-petition drive, in a quest to rid the neighborhood of what many have called an eyesore, a magnet for crime, and an attractor of vagrants and flea markets.

In the Roaring '20s, when motion pictures were still in their infancy and grand, ornate movie palaces were popping up across the country, 560 Haight opened as the Riviera Theater.

A San Francisco Examiner clipping, dated March 5, 1927, touts the magnificence of the theater: "It is a modern steel and concrete structure with balcony, and equipment including the newest improvements for the projection of motion pictures. ... Its interior is handsome in its architectural and decorative details."

Toward the end of the Great Depression, the theater changed hands and became known as the Midtown. Shortly after the Midtown went out of business in the 1950s, an African-American congregation purchased the theater, which at the time was at the fringe of the city's black neighborhood.

With some remodeling, the congregation transformed the theater into a church. The marquee and the towering neon sign with the theater's name were taken down and replaced with a modest neon cross. The church also installed six big windows, modified the stage to provide seats for a choir, and built a large kitchen. But as the African-American population moved out of the neighborhood over the next few decades, the congregation shrank. The church deteriorated.

"They [the homeless] know how to break into it. I can't keep anything there. They live there -- people on drugs and people that don't work," says the Rev. Jesse Grant, who has been with the church since its founding.

Over the years, Grant, now 84, tried to maintain the church on his own. But as he got older, he could no longer keep up with the work on the sizable property. In 1996, the Planning Department cited the church for building code violations and for being a nuisance. A year later, the city threatened to sell it for failing to pay property taxes.

In the past six years, three buyers have approached the church, but the first two deals fell apart. Finally this year four developers purchased the property for nearly $1 million.

Their plan is to gut the building, partition the space into 19 condos and 31 underground parking spaces, and restore the original facade. The developers refused to disclose how much the units will sell for, though other new condos in the neighborhood are priced between $230,000 and $320,000.

Neighborhood residents opposing the condo project want to restore the theater and use the space for a community center, which would host a variety of activities, ranging from job fairs, after-school programs, and merchant meetings to film festivals, a neighborhood museum celebrating diversity, and an art gallery showcasing young talents.

Jim Houillian, an articulate, amicable, and slightly reserved restorer of Victorian homes, believes the neighborhood needs something "inclusive."

"Right now, white people fear black people and vice versa. More affluent people fear less affluent people and vice versa. We have so many different kinds of people. I want to create something positive out of diversity, to break through the fear," Houillian, who is white, says.

Jeri Thompson, owner of Rooky Ricardo's Records, says the low-income African-American population in the Lower Haight needs a community center. "We need a place where children can go to learn to read, to learn to write, to count properly," Thompson says.

Many supporters of the condo conversion project don't deny the potential good a community center could do. They just see little likelihood that such a center will actually be built, and they fear stopping the condos will leave the neighborhood with nothing but the eyesore the former church has become.

Rochelle McCune (no relation to Joe McCune), who owns a green, gated Victorian across the street from the empty church and who works for Project Open Hand, a nonprofit group that provides nutrition services for HIV-positive people, says the community center proposal is "too little, too late."

"The building was quite cheap six years ago," she says. "Where have those people been? If they had knocked at my door, I would have supported it.

"A 'community center' is a warm and fuzzy term. How can anybody be against it?" asks McCune, who's installed a gate on her property to prevent drunks from sleeping on her steps, and who's spotted drug dealing in front of the church. "[But] I don't see any proof it will be viable. I don't know why I should turn away from a viable option for something that I am not sure there is funding for."

Indeed, at this point the anti-condo camp has no source of funding with which to turn its dream into reality. Meanwhile, neighborhood residents have seen a block farther down Haight clean up after an old taxi garage was converted into condos.

From a traffic point of view, the community center idea is also problematic. A community center that includes a 1,000-plus-seat theater would, if successful, bring in overwhelming traffic on top of the already overwhelming traffic.

"The condos are going to bring in 40 cars. They are going to have parking spaces for the cars. The theater is not going to provide parking," says McCune.

Opponents of the condo project say it has one great deficiency among many: The structure does not comply with the city's residential building code.

The former theater and church occupies almost the entire lot it sits on and abuts buildings on three sides; there is little open space around for the back yard or windows to face. Its imminent conversion to condos has raised privacy concerns for residents of adjacent properties. Opponents argue that the privacy and open space issues constitute just one of many reasons to deny the developers variance permits to go ahead with the project.

But in San Francisco, it is far from "outlandish" to have housing created in non-code-conforming space. "Number 1 we have a shortage of housing," says Robert Passmore, the zoning administrator who granted the variance permits. "San Francisco was built up before current zoning control went into effect. We have a lot of non-zoning-compliant buildings. Over time, there is a need to use buildings for what they were not originally used for. Economics dictate that."

And at least one family who has privacy concerns came out strongly in favor of the project.

The anti-condo camp has also cited the theater's historical and architectural values as a reason to preserve and restore it.

"Even though there has been a lot of vandalism and destruction, it's breathtaking to walk in there and see it [the theater]. It's like a ghost. To walk in -- wow! It just bowls people over," says Houillian.

But according to the San Francisco Heritage Foundation's Chris Ver Plank, an architectural historian who is currently involved in landmarking an old theater in the Mission District, the former theater in the Haight has little historical or architectural value.

"It's certainly not city landmark quality. ... I don't think they [anti-condo activists] can make a case of extreme architectural value in the city of San Francisco," concluded Ver Plank after evaluating the theater at the request of Houillian. He also noted that the exterior had been "extensively changed."

The anti-condo camp further condemns the condo development for ruining the character of the neighborhood, a character said to include, among other things, bohemian culture, low rent, ethnic diversity, and the absence of so-called "yuppies."

"It [the condo development] could change the character of the neighborhood," says Carol Hull, a longtime property owner and community activist in the neighborhood. "As far as I am concerned, that would be a good thing. I don't think those funky people who hang out there, the skateboarders at the Horse Shoe, have any claim there."

Since the building was sold and boarded up in April of this year, police have been called out more than two dozen times in response to reports of suspicious people, trespassing, verbal fighting, peace disturbance, and assault.

Since the anti-condo camp raised objections to the project in June, the developers have made a concession to the community center concept, agreeing to give free office space to Back on Track, a model after-school tutoring program.

That offer, however, has been spurned by the condo opponents. "That's only one program," says anti-condo activist Cecilia Shepard, whose ideal community center would run a great variety of programs.

So Shepard and her colleagues dream of a community center. The condo project is stalled in city bureaucracy. And 560 Haight St. remains a blight.

About The Author

Helen Gao


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