By Thomas K. Pendergast
The atmospheric rivers of wind and rainstorms slamming the Bay Area and California this winter not only downed trees and caused fatalities, they also led to the demise of a Richmond District icon.
The blade sign on the venerable Alexandria Theatre – a fixture on Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue for nearly a century – was damaged to the point that the property owners had to have it taken down. City inspectors from the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) on Jan. 10 because the sign was deemed a public safety hazard.
The department’s NOV states that a section of the sign was unattached from the building, creating a potentially unsafe condition as the bottom of the sign dangled about 50 feet above the sidewalk.
The building’s owners, TimeSpace Group, were required by the NOV to “obtain the services of a licensed professional, preferably a structural engineer, to assess the situation. Then they must either secure or remove the damaged sign and install barricades at the perimeter of the area deemed unsafe.”
The owners decided to do the latter and cut the sign down.
Although the building has not been given landmark status by the City, elements of the building, like the blade sign and the marquee, are considered historical resources.
“I called the property owners as well as DBI to urge everybody to work together to preserve the sign – not just the sign but the façade of the theater, as well as the light fixtures and the murals and the chandelier inside,” District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan said. “I always have urged the property owners to really consider preserving them.”
Woody LaBounty of the local organization San Francisco Heritage and the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project is skeptical that the sign had to be removed, as opposed to stabilized.
“The thing that feels disingenuous about it is that it took two days to basically cut this thing off and it wasn’t easy,” LaBounty said. “They were yanking and pulling and having a hard time. I feel like it could have just as easily been secured rather than just pulled off and cut to pieces.”
Phone calls, voicemail messages, emails and texts seeking comment for this article from the owner of TimeSpace Group, real estate developer Yorke Lee, did not get a response by press time.
San Francisco Planning Department records show that an application to build housing on the site was filed last September, but, so far, no building plans have been submitted.
As reported in the July 2019 issue of the Richmond Review, Lee had previously submitted and received approval from the SF Planning Commission to build a 13,322-square-foot “swim center” featuring two swimming pools on the first floor, a 9,820-square-foot “learning center” on a second floor and a 9,135-square-foot “business center” on a third floor.
But before any of that got started, the pandemic hit.
“When I took office, when I talked to them about moving the plan forward, because of the pandemic they were having a hard time securing construction loans,” Chan said. “So, it paused for a while.
“During that time I worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) to try to find them a community revitalization grant that could make that plan a reality, but they didn’t qualify for the grant,” she said. “I worked with Assemblymember Phil Ting to try and acquire the site, so perhaps we can build 100% affordable housing as a city project, but I think that we couldn’t come into agreement between the assessed value by the City and the price that they wanted to sell the land. So we couldn’t come to an agreement with that.”
The theater building will be 100 years old this coming November – it closed in 2004. Since then, there has been more than one attempt at finding a new use for it.
“They’ve had at least two different proposals over the years to do projects there, and both times they were going to preserve the blade sign as part of the project,” LaBounty said. “So the only way they can really get away with pulling that blade sign off is in an instance of public safety because of this. This is what bothers me, is that they can neglect and let this thing deteriorate to the point where it becomes a hazard and then they benefit because they get to take it away and not have to deal with it in their projects.”
He also questions the true priorities of the owners, noting that the previous theater parking lot was covered by a new housing project.
“What they were looking for is to make the money off building housing on a parking lot in the back. And they were going to ignore the historic building as long as possible because it was going to be more costly and they’d have to deal with how to readapt it,” he said. “So once they built the housing they lost interest, I think, in the entire building and I think it’s just been a place to park money.”
“This is so sad,” Chan said. “It’s sitting here, dilapidated and becoming a blight by the day. What can we do as a community to move this forward to either make sure that it is a community space or better yet, community space and affordable housing?
“I think a lot of people that I’m talking with would just like to see it as something,” she said.
“It’s on the owners to step up here,” LaBounty said. “It’s not an issue of its history or preservationists stopping a project or anything like that. It’s about the owner stepping up and taking care of their property and respecting the neighborhood, communicating with neighbors and not letting it be graffiti covered, because it’s going to become a public safety hazard. They shouldn’t benefit by letting it deteriorate so that they can tear it down and have a clean slate.
“That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a bad example for the whole City.”
“Now that mother nature has brought this to a head for us,” Chan said, “maybe it is really time that we look to the future and have a conversation in earnest about what we can do with this site.”
This photo of the Alexandria theatre from 1956 is always the way I will remember this movie theatre. My very first movie was seen there in 1955. So sad how times and changes some times reduces our shared history to the rubble heap. My memories of the theatre and of Geary Street between 17th and 23rd will not end up in some heap.
List it as a historic building and force owners to move on get something done. Just think of all the iconic building that have been destroyed and their heritage lost, by people who want to milk the money (good on them) but generally not give a toss about being a stitch in the fabric of a village.
Shame on all the people involved in this debacle, stand up SF leadership and lead.
Thanks for covering this important local story. It’s clear that the owners of this neglected former movie palace will not or cannot act responsibly. The community and the city should aggressively explore legal and legislative strategies for not just repairing the delapidated eyesore, but making use of the space in a way that benefits the community.