(Photo by Jason Shane)
It’s tough to miss the Alexandria Theater as you drive down Geary toward the far reaches of the Richmond District. With its decaying facade and the jacked-up chain link fence surrounding the once brightly-lit entryway, this relic of San Francisco’s cinema past has been nothing but an empty eyesore looming large over an otherwise busy neighborhood since it closed in 2004. Now, it sounds like this rather rare example of urban blight in the City by the Bay might just be sticking around even longer.
The Alexandria, one of a number of vacant theaters in the City (along with the Harding on Divisadero and the Tower on Mission, among others), opened in 1923 as yet another Samuel Levin-owned theater in San Francisco. Designed by famed brother architects Reid & Reid (whose other projects included the Fairmont San Francisco, the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, and the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego), the theater boasted a beautiful Egyptian-inspired art deco design. Over the years, renovations robbed the theater’s exterior of most of its unique design elements, and it eventually became a United Artists-operated three-screen multiplex before closing in 2004.
That same year, the theater and the parking lot to its rear were purchased by Alexandria Enterprises, LLC, but no plans were laid to renovate or improve the property until approximately 2010. Since that time, there’s been much discussion of what was next for the Alexandria, but very little action. Just check out Curbed SF’s history of articles on the subject – there’s been talk of a mixed-use development, not to mention homeless people residing and relieving themselves inside the unlocked theater, since as early as February 2010.
A little more than a year ago, the Alexandria’s renovation began to pick up steam, with the mixed-use plan again rising to the surface. If you’ve followed the excellent reporting by both Curbed and The Richmond District Blog, you know that the Planning Department approved that plan in April 2013, green-lighting the renovation of the existing building to include retail, a restaurant, and a tiny movie theater, as well as the construction of a mixed-use building on the rear parking lot with more retail, plus nearly 40 affordable housing units and an underground parking garage.
Despite the City finally giving Alexandria Enterprises the go-ahead to start the renovation, nothing much has changed in the past 14 months – in fact, things have gotten worse. Graffiti covered the upper reaches of the facade, homeless encampments sprung up in the parking lot, there have been at least two break-ins, and stomach-turning evidence surfaced of damage to some of the once-grand theater’s most beautiful features.
It wasn’t until then that some of the Bay’s more prominent news outlets began to take notice, with the Chronicle running a lengthy piece on the subject and KTVU sending a reporter to the scene to interview folks living on the property and some more-than-perturbed neighbors:
On May 19, 2014, Supervisor Eric Mar and others conducted a walk-through inspection of the Alexandria to examine the state of the property and determine what fixes the owners needed to make in order to avoid losing the development permits granted just more than a year ago. That inspection led to the issuance of a lengthy Notice of Violation and Penalty (NOVP) by the Planning Department on Wednesday of this week.
The NOVP cites Alexandria Enterprises with violating the conditional use permit’s provision regarding “Security, Supervision, Maintenance and General Upkeep” of both the theater and parking lot. The company has until July 3 to correct the various violations, which include removing the aforementioned graffiti, keeping the property free of trash and debris, improving security, replacing the chain-link fence at the theater’s entrance with a “visually attractive and sturdy” alternative, and ensuring lead paint abatement on the exterior of the building, among others.
If they fail to respond in time (either correcting the violations or appeal the NOVP), there is a $250 penalty for each day until a satisfactory response is made, in addition to a $1,209 penalty for which they are already liable due the Planning Department’s time and materials spent conducting its investigation. The company would also risk forfeiting its permit, which would likely leave the theater stagnant for many more years to come.
While the future of the Alexandria still remains up in the air ten years after it ceased operation, it’s difficult not to imagine what it could be – a beacon for the performing arts in a neighborhood that desperately lacks just that. Yes, there are a couple small movie theaters in the Richmond (the Balboa and Four Star, although the glorified flat screen TVs in the latter barely count), but there is only one proper music venue (thank you, Neck of the Woods) and few, if any, other performance spaces west of Arguello. Seeing what happened with Oakland’s once decaying Fox Theatre after it lay vacant for more than 35 years raises the question of why the Alexandria couldn’t become the west side’s leading arts venue.
Certainly, executing the currently approved plans for the property would yield a better situation than the one currently at hand, but it would be tough to witness a neighborhood icon gutted and turned into a generic retail and restaurant space, with so much of that already present out in the avenues. With so many San Franciscans concerned about being priced out of trendier neighborhoods like the Mission and Alamo Square/Western Addition (don’t call it NoPa), the Richmond would be a great alternative for folks seeking less ridiculous housing prices and a new scene. Unfortunately, it sounds like the Alexandria won’t be at the forefront of such a movement for quite some time, whether it remains vacant or undergoes its currently approved makeover.