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The Curtain Slowly Rises 

After years of delays and millions in public funds, Brava opened its inaugural season in a still unfinished theater

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
All Ellen Gavin wanted to do, five years ago, was find a larger home for her radical feminist theater company, Brava for Women in the Arts. The York Theater seemed like a decent enough space. It needed fixing up, along with its immediate neighborhood, so Gavin played politics with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and the Mayor's Office to buy the theater and revitalize its corner of the Inner Mission.

But as SF Weekly reported more than a year ago ("Political Theater," Nov. 3, 1999), that goal proved maddeningly elusive. After four years and more than $2 million in city and state funding, Gavin had managed, by the end of last year, to buy the theater but had run out of funds to renovate it, leaving its future in limbo.

Now, with the passing of another year of achingly slow progress, the theater has reached a milestone of sorts. Cobbling together funds mostly from private foundations, Brava managed to open its inaugural season as planned this month, even though construction on the theater is still at least a couple months away from completion. The first performance of Belén: A Book of Hours opened Dec. 6, while a generator in the street lit the building. An opening-night audience of about 240 people filed through a plywood facade, under a towering old sign that says "York" (where it should say "Brava"), and into a garagelike, raw-concrete space that will eventually be the foyer. Belén, a musical-movement piece about a Mexican prison for women, played only for two and a half weeks, to enthusiastic reviews but sparse post-opening-night audiences. It closed Dec. 17, and now Gavin and her staff need to concentrate on finishing the theater before a show in February. Construction workers crawl around the space all day, trying to meet a Jan. 24 deadline, but no one can say for sure when the project will be done.

The York sits on a sleepy but colorful block of 24th Street, looking stately and sad behind a row of heavy trees. It should be a model for turning other dormant movie houses into performance spaces, because all the elements fit together like Legos: 1) a theater group that wants a sizable stage, in 2) a city where arts groups are in danger, finds 3) a dormant, wide-screen cinemasaurus, that happens to be in 4) a sagging neighborhood haunted by drugs. And the Vaudeville-era building also includes 5) a whole block of storefronts, which, rented, could provide regular income for the theater. Gavin's project should be a shining example of synergy between local artists and creative civic planners; instead, it's become a cautionary tale.

Brava's original deadline for finishing renovation was mid-1997. The Redevelopment Agency extended a $300,000 loan toward the York's $700,000 purchase price in 1995; with help from other public and private organizations Brava bought the building early in 1996. The company's presence on the street was supposed to attract theatergoers on weekends, as well as funky neighborhood retailers (and their customers) during the day. But the ironic result of the Redevelopment Agency's involvement has been an underdeveloped stretch of 24th Street.

"For me, as a person who just lives around the corner," says a woman who lives on York Street, "it's totally great to have a theater in the neighborhood. But it's a lame use of space." Out of the five shopfronts owned by Brava, "you have this kind of run-down bar, and Cafe Fanari, which closes at 8, and then these ... three empty storefronts. So you have a block that gets really dark, and really quiet, and is the ideal place for 20 or 30 young men to hang out, harassing people on Friday night."

Lucia Mele, the project manager for Brava at the Redevelopment Agency, is apologetic on Gavin's behalf. "All our projects that started around then are taking this long," she says. Since 1996 and '97 were the beginning of a local construction boom, contractors grew costly and scarce. "Some of them are taking longer. In fact, one of the projects that was approved before [Gavin's] still hasn't started construction yet. So actually she's doing pretty well."

There are plenty of other surface reasons for the delay. Gavin admits to dawdling over architectural plans. Fund-raising was harder than expected, and the project costs kept rising. Brava has received money not just from the Redevelopment Agency but from the Mayor's Office of Community Development, the city's Art Commission, a state-level arts grant, and the Northern California Community Loan fund. That means "a lot of red tape," according to Mele. "Some of our [Redevelopment] money was federal, so there were federal requirements on top of all that."

But what about those storefronts? Brava already takes in rent from Cafe Fanari and the bar. In the real-estate boom that started when she purchased the York, surely Gavin could have raised even more money, without red tape, by renting the other three spaces to retailers. Instead, for now, one storefront is the Brava business office. Another is given over to contractors while they fix up the building. The third, down the street a bit, was used for two and a half weeks as a dressing room for the Belén cast, but normally sits vacant. "Sometimes we use it for a conference room," says Julia Dunatov, a Brava employee who helps run a theater-tech-training group called the Running Crew. "I use it for a lot of educational stuff, because it's away from the phones."

No one on Gavin's staff seems to know why they haven't been rented. Gavin declined to be interviewed, but Managing Director Alleluia Panis says the company's first priority is to renovate the theater. "We're in the business of doing the arts," she explains. "It would be nice to get a business plan of sorts to see how the commercial aspect of it can be developed, but at this point, I think that our energies have to be in the business of getting the theater complete."

One reason the spaces haven't been rented yet may be that Brava's loan agreement with Redevelopment includes a severe form of rent control, which limits the storefronts' profitability. The three units in question are small, and one of Brava's loan requirements sets the commercial-space rental price at 99 cents a square foot, or what Redevelopment calls a "below market" rate. "We did a survey [in '96]," says Mele, "and decided that a dollar per foot was market, and it had to be below market. ... A lot of places were paying $2 at that time, so that was considered very reasonable."

Maybe too reasonable. If the idea was to help a theater company get to its feet -- and revive a dormant neighborhood, by bringing in business -- why not let the company rent its commercial space for $1.99 a square foot (still a below-market rate)? Or, at least, rent the low-cost space to other deserving enterprises, which would help revitalize the neighborhood? The agency has been more than indulgent with Gavin in other respects, as SF Weekly reported last year. Redevelopment's original $300,000 contribution was a "forgivable loan," scheduled to become an outright grant in 2015; Mele amended the loan with an extra $90,000 last October, and added five years to the term. So now it's a $390,000 loan, scheduled to become an outright grant in 2020. What Brava must do until then, to avoid repaying the loan, is (among other things) rent its commercial space "below market." In theory that isn't a bad stipulation, but in current practice -- where retail space now rents for around $2.75 -- it erases a key factor in what should be an elegant, self-rejuvenating equation for improving a run-down street.

Brava's storefronts are yet another example of the vagueness over money (bureaucratic vagueness, as well as artistic) that seems to have hobbled an otherwise brilliant opportunity. With luck, Brava's facelift will be completed in time for its next performances, its troubles can be forgotten, and its four years of essentially living on welfare can begin to see a payoff. Of course most arts groups have always depended on the kindness of strangers, but with Brava it didn't need to be such a tortuous journey.


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