The fate of the Richmond district’s Alexandria theater appears to be in development limbo six years after it closed down and changed hands.
After 81 years of showing pictures to the neighborhood and visitors alike, the spacious art deco Alexandria showed its last film and shuttered its doors in 2004. Projection equipment and theater seats were promptly removed, crushing hopes of the venue being swiftly reopened as a movie house. The new owners, a group doing business as Alexandria Enterprises has put the space and its adjacent parking lot to little use, and neighbors are currently complaining about squatters, trash, and blight.
“I talked to another neighbor this weekend and he said that people were living inside the theater and they cleaned it out recently – three dumpsters worth,” says Sarah B. of the Richmond SF Blog. “People were sleeping in there, cooking, urinating and defecating,” she says, adding, “Sounds like the inside is a goner.” Sarah B. recently profiled the theater on her blog.
That’s not to say that developers have no plans. “The parking lot is going to become a 46-unit residential [space] with ground floor commercial space and parking for both the theater and residents of that complex,” says project consultant Ronald Yu. As for the movie house itself, “The theater is right now just to be renovated. We’re not sure on the use,” Yu continues. One concept on the table is the open the space to the YMCA, which sits across the street from the 5400 Geary Boulevard lot.
So, what’s the hitch? The process has been stuck at the city Planning Department for years, representatives of the developers say.
“Last I heard letters were still ping-ponging back and forth between the city and investors with no real progress,” says Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a San Francisco historical society that has been following the project’s progess. He added, “No doubt the economy has slowed things down even further.”
While the office of district supervisor Eric Mar seems to be concerned about the project, aides indicated that they have developed no clear plan for making the space usable. “I wish there were plans!” says Mar’s legislative aide Cassandra Costello, “It’s vacant, it attracts blight, and we would love to work with the community and Geary Street merchants.” However, Mar’s office did not indicate that they had any plans to ever meet with developers or whether there was anything Richmond residents could do to push the matter forward.
The 87-year-old Alexandria is not listed as a San Francisco Landmark or Structure of Merit, and thus has little protection as a place of interest in San Francisco.
New vacant property regulations — which force the owners of vacant spaces to register their buildings or pay a steep fine — also seem unlikely to affect the Alexandria project. The Examiner just reported that the city is currently enforcing the vacancy regulations on 230 suspected vacant spaces. However, the Department of Building Inspection does not have the Alexandria on its list of registered vacant lots, though “not all buildings have been reported” to the city, says the department’s Bill Strawn. What’s more, Strawn explains, if spaces have building permits or ongoing construction, or if they are for sale, then they are “considered exempt” from the new laws.
Alexandria Theater Enterprises representative Ronald Yu also points out that commercial spaces in the front of the building are currently being used, which could keep the developers from having to deal with registering the site as a vacant lot, regardless of the status of their renovation plans. Businesses like My Day Wedding Store (warning: creepy music! This website feels like an underground level of Super Mario Bros.) have operated in external sections of the venue since before the theater shut down, and developers say they will likely remain after the building is reopened.
Time will tell how long the Planning Department needs for permits to be approved. “At this point, something needs to be done, even if it’s tearing down the theater and building something new,” Sarah B. opines. “It’s such a blight.”
Update: According to the Department of Building Inspection, there is one more reason the Alexandria is not considered vacant. The Richmond YMCA holds a lease on the space for daily use.
Photo: Andreas Praefcke