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Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
Cort of Last Resort
Debbie Cort is an intense and difficult woman. The 35-year-old San Francisco real estate developer doesn't have conversations; she has confrontations.

Cort and her mother, Vera, manage seven commercial and residential properties, worth approximately $10 million altogether, for the retired family patriarch, Robert J. Cort, who, after practicing law all his life, started buying real estate and now, at the age of 78, likes nothing so much as sitting at home and reading books. (My personal definition of success.)

Since last fall, Debbie Cort has had her eye on one property in particular: 2550 Mission St., the New Mission Theater, a tarnished architectural gem designed and built in 1907 by neoclassical architects John and Merritt Reid, and renovated in 1932 by art deco master Timothy Pflueger. Although her family owns the old Rialto Theater building on the 2500 block of Mission, Cort doesn't want to buy the New Mission Theater, located almost directly across the street.

She merely wants to save it.
The theater is slated for demolition to make room for a new Mission District campus of the San Francisco Community College District. In making its plans, the college district ignored the architectural and historic significance of the theater by relying on a city report that utterly misrepresented the facts.

Last September, when I wrote about the efforts by Cort and a historic preservationist group, San Francisco Heritage, to save the theater, they were battling against the odds. The college district had already purchased the theater and an adjacent discount store for $2 million; all the district needed was what seemed to be a pro forma release of state bond money for the $35 million construction job to begin.

But since then, a lot has happened, much of it almost as senseless and entertaining as Mission District politics can get.

First, even though a state bond issue passed and the money is theoretically available, the state community college chancellor has refused to give the San Francisco district any of the bond money. Without those funds, the college district can't build a new campus for the Mission District.

And second, the Cort family has offered to purchase a building, develop it to the community college district's specifications, and lease the new campus to the district -- at cost, and on whatever payout plan the district can afford.

But of course the district won't even listen to the offer.
This is, after all, the Mission, where race and politics are always more important than results or common sense.

Last summer, Debbie Cort and S.F. Heritage filed suit over City College's plans to raze the New Mission Theater and build a new campus. This month, city officials turned away S.F. Heritage's architectural expert, Chris Ver Planck, when he applied to have the New Mission Theater named a historical landmark. He won some satisfaction, though, when the college district agreed to hire an architect who would study the possibility of incorporating the theater's art deco interior and the majestic marquee into the design of the new campus.

Ver Planck, who has spearheaded the preservation efforts, told me last week that he's happy with this outcome.

But Cort isn't. She wants more. From what I know of her, I'd wager that Debbie Cort always wants more.

She has augmented her rabble-rouser-litigant role to become an unpaid (and unwanted) real estate broker for the college district. Cort has found what she believes are suitable alternative sites for the new campus. The district has turned them all down.

Undeterred, she and her family have made an unusually generous offer. Joined by her brother, Robert Cort Jr., who is a commercial real estate broker, Debbie Cort has offered to buy an existing building one block from the planned campus site and finance, develop, and hand over -- at no profit to the Cort family, and at favorable lease terms to the district -- a finished college campus.

Again, this seemingly perfect deal has been turned down by the college district.

Actually, the district hasn't heard the offer yet. Some officials have heard some pieces of it. But college officials are stubbornly refusing to listen to the offer in its entirety.

Granted, Debbie Cort is hard to listen to sometimes. Her manner can be as abrasive as supermarket aftershave. But there is something else that is queering this seemingly agreeable partnership: racial politics.

Cort is white, and her family is unpopular with many segments of the Hispanic community.

College district officials and Hispanic leaders supporting the new campus have characterized Cort as a provocateur and a profiteer, a white preservationist hostile to the educational advancement of the Hispanic community, a woman who is concerned mainly with muscling the college district into a land deal that puts money in her family's pocket. "Why should we make Debbie Cort rich?" asks Jose Maestre, the chairman of the district committee charged with building the new campus. "This historic preservation stuff is just a smoke screen."

Cort and her family members have similarly warm feelings for the college district and its officials. Cort thinks they are arrogant, race-obsessed bureaucrats who don't know what's good for them.

"They have this sense that it's their property, and how dare anyone else tell them what to do with it," she says. "It's also because I am white."

What we have here is a situation only possible in San Francisco's tumultuous Mission District, where gentrification has rubbed nerves raw. Where the social buffers between an embattled Hispanic community and an ascendant class of white entrepreneurs and residents have all fallen away. And where everyone involved is acting like a stubborn child at the height of a full-blown temper tantrum.

The Cort family starts from a significant deficit in any attempt to win the goodwill and trust of Hispanic leaders. The Corts have been tagged as hostile to Hispanic cultural heritage.

About The Author

George Cothran


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