Geary theater is sold; new owners reviewing options

by Thomas K. Pendergast

After a 10-year intermission, it seems the curtain is rising on the fourth act of the Alexandria Theater. However, predicting its fate is like predicting the plot of a John Waters' film: It is anyone's guess what will happen.

Opened on Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue in 1923, the theater has undergone remodeling and renovation twice before, in 1941 and 1976, but times have changed from the glory days of the silver screen, and now there is a serious question of whether or not another theater here, even a much scaled-down version, is commercially viable.

The Alexandria closed in 2004. Since then, it has gone from a local landmark to a beacon of blight.

Recently, it acquired a new owner, or rather, group of owners, called the Alexander Develop­ment Group (ADG), which purchased the property for an undisclosed amount. The sale includes the parking lot behind the theater.

One plan already approved by the San Francisco Planning Department would allow about 40 residential units and perhaps some commercial space on the ground floor where the parking lot is now. A spokesperson for the new owners says they will be proceeding with this part of the plan as approved, with some adjustments.

As for the Alexandria Theater, the approved plan calls for keeping and restoring the theater's outer shell and facade, but splitting the theater itself in half with two separate floors.

"The Alexandria Theatre building would be adaptively reused and would contain a 250-seat theater and associated space, 7,180 gross-square-feet (gsf) of retail space and 7,500 gross square feet of restaurant space," says a SF Planning Department document. "A new, 52,337-gross-square-foot, four-story, mixed-use building would replace the theater's surface parking lot. The mixed-use building would contain two underground levels of parking with 136 parking spaces, 5,650 gsf of ground-floor retail and 46 residential units. The project site is located in an NC-3 (Neighborhood Commercial, moderate scale) zoning district and 40-X height and bulk district in the Inner Richmond neighborhood."

Gina Simi, communications director for the planning department, confirmed that it was optional whether the new owners proceed with this plan or come up with one of their own and submit it for approval at the SF Planning Commission. Adjust­ments to the current plan would be judged on a case-by-case basis regarding whether they are significant enough to trigger a new submission.

But according to Jessica Zhao, a spokesperson for the new owners, ADG is still assembling a team of consultants and all options are now back on the table.

"We are in the process of assembling a team for the engineering, so everything is moving very quickly," said Zhao. "We are still in the process of finalizing the plan with the planning department … we have been talking to the neighborhood, the community, and we're hearing … along 18th Avenue there are no commercial activities going on there and we respect that. So, we don't think that it would be a good idea to have the whole ground floor being commercial.

"So that's something that we are finalizing that maybe we will keep like a corner, neighborhood-serving cafe on 18th and that's about it. We want to keep the commercial part facing Geary."

Alfonso G. Felder is on the board of directors for the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which will be consulting with the new owners. Right now, however, the foundation favors saving and restoring the entire theater, not slicing it in half.

"There are ways to re-imagine a grand old building like the Alexandria Theater to suit a modern standard, while respecting the history and architecture of the building," Felder said.

He cited examples of movie theaters in San Raphael, El Cerrito and the New Mission Theater in the Mission District, and does not see why something like that could not work at the Alexandria.

"We'd love to see a cinema use there," Felder said.

He acknowledged that many modern movie theaters only have a couple of hundred seats, but he noted that most of them are in multi-screen theater buildings, so he is skeptical if a single-screen theater, which could only accommodate the same amount, would be commercially viable.

Zhao says the new ownership group is wondering the same thing right now.

"That's a good question and that's a question that we're asking as well," she said. "We need more time and need to continue to talk to people in the industry. We are not in the theater industry, so we kind of want the expert to tell us 'will that make sense?' That's a big question that we are also asking."

So, while they have a plan ready to go, they are not sure yet if it will work for them financially.

"Right now, what we have had approved a year ago was to provide a one-screen theater on the second floor and then have a restaurant downstairs, commercial, and that is the plan that was approved by planning," Zhao said. "What will be the best and creative adaptive re-use of this space? We kind of want to have the market tell us what the best use of this space is. We have been hearing a lot of different comments from the neighborhood … regarding what has been approved and we do believe there's something missing there that the market wants. We want to activate the corner … something that's very beneficial for the neighborhood.

"So, before we finalize the plan, we want to (analyze) what the market's telling us right now."

About a month before ADG bought it, the City cracked down on the previous owners for neglecting the property by allowing homeless people to squat there and not cleaning up graffiti. Zhao says ADG has now taken on the responsibility for maintaining the property going forward.

"After we took over, we went inside the building many times. We are correcting all these violations from the previous period, and we've been taking action here. There are security alarms set up and there is no breaking in from what we know of, since we took over."