As the Palace of Fine Arts celebrates its centennial, the iconic space by San Francisco's waterfront is to enter a new chapter. Three companies want to take over and renovate the palace, turning it from a gorgeous theater encased in an awe-inspiring park into a commercial destination that not only attracts visitors to the building; it keeps them there for as long as possible.
The palace, which sits on the San Francisco Bay by the Golden Gate Bridge, has undergone many transformations since it was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. Over the years, the building has housed everything from tennis courts to a telephone book distribution center. By the 1960s, the edifice had fallen into ruin, and was eventually rebuilt through the efforts of local residents and became the home of the Exploratorium, a science museum founded by Frank Oppenheimer in 1969.
After the Exploratorium moved out of the palace back in 2013, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Commission (SF Rec and Parks), the governmental body that runs the palace, has been needing a new tenant. The commission requested proposals last year and by that November, an independent panel narrowed the field from seven to three finalists. The panel, made up of artists and community leaders, made their decisions based on factors such as public access, financials, and compatibility with the neighborhood.
The three final plans all incorporate commercial offerings like hotels and restaurants, but all proposals also include a performing arts space, as mandated by the commission.
But after the commission announced the three final proposals, a local resident posted an online petition calling on SF Rec and Parks to use the building exclusively as a cultural and educational center. The petition had garnered more than 20,000 signatures as of the end of last week, and many members of the public showed up at a meeting last Thursday to voice their concerns about the plans. The SF Rec and Parks commission listened to the comments before unanimously voting to continue its support of the three front-running proposals for the 150,000 square foot site.
"We are pleased so many people are interested in the future of the Palace of Fine Arts and hope they stay engaged in the process," says Sarah Madland, director of policy and public affairs for SF Rec and Parks, noting that the petition comes less than halfway through the Palace of Fine Arts' six-year-long redevelopment period.
Whatever plan is chosen will be a boon for San Francisco, as it means increased revenues for the city. But the selected developer faces considerable challenges, as the cavernous building requires around $20 million in improvements to its seismic infrastructure and air conditioning system.
To better inform those following this process, we've broken down the each of the three proposals, excluding financial details -- KQED inquired into the cost of each project, but Madland says the budget information is currently unavailable at this stage in the process.
1. The Maybeck Center at the Palace of Fine Arts
Named for the original architect of the building, Bernard Maybeck, the proposal includes an unspecified amount of lodging, a wedding chapel, eateries, a gym/spa, a live performance space, and historical and scientific exhibits. (Click here for PDF of the plan)
The people behind it
Local developers TMG Partners and Flynn Properties are behind this proposal. The firms have worked on upscale projects like Landmark at One Market in San Francisco and the Emeryville Public Market. TMG Partners specializes in restoring historic buildings and putting them to new uses, as the firm did with 1000 Van Ness: the long-vacant Cadillac Building was acquired by TMG in 1997 and turned into a complex with a multiplex cinema, health club and luxury condominiums.
The plan proposes adding skylights and windows to the structure, creating an internal courtyard, and fixing up at least one of the historic fireplaces. The guest rooms will be built on and beneath a new mezzanine in a way that the full ceiling height remains in the central part of the building. The commission's panel considered this project to be the most financially viable of the lot, which isn't surprising considering the proposal's high-end commercial aspirations. In addition, this project counts the venue's previous long-term tenant, The Exploratorium, as a partner, which the company touts as a way to create a sense of continuity with the past.
2. San Francisco Arts, Crafts, Community and Hospitality
The proposal features a 174-room hotel and a grand public concourse with retail shops, cafes, studios, galleries, a cooking school, historical exhibits about the Palace of Fine Arts, a performing arts space and art installations. (Click here for PDF of the plan)
The people behind it
This proposal is led by developer Equity Community Builders (ECB), which worked on Cavallo Point in Golden Gate National Park and American Conservatory Theater's new Strand venue on Market Street. ECB also has extensive experience rehabilitating old buildings, like the $12.7-million Thoreau Center for Sustainability inside the Presidio's Letterman Hospital, which dates from 1846 and is part of the historic landmark run by the National Park Service.
The San Francisco Arts, Crafts, Community and Hospitality proposal mentions the Ferry Building as a model, so will likely offer visitors a similar style of boutiquey shopping and dining options. The plan emphasizes that a hotel can limit traffic and parking, and intends to direct guests exclusively through Marina Boulevard rather than the rest of the neighborhood. The proposed hotel in the Palace will be on the two mezzanine levels flanking the main concourse as to minimize the impact on the public space. Despite the commercial aspirations, the plan is also creative-minded: the developer has tapped public art maven Leslie Pritchett to head the project's arts, crafts, and creativity program together with Melissa Alexander (previously of the Black Rock Arts Foundation and currently the Director of Public Programs at the Exploratorium.)
3. San Francisco Museum At The Palace Consortium (SFMAP)
The proposal centers on a new museum at the Palace of Fine Arts that delves into the history of San Francisco and the Bay Area, which will include an earthquake simulation theater. It also includes a public event space and a restaurant run by the Absinthe Group, known for the swanky Hayes Valley eateries Absinthe Brasserie and Boxing Room. (Click here for PDF of the plan)
The people behind it
Bob and Ink Mendelsohn are spearheading this effort. The former is President and CEO of real estate developer Republic Metropolitan, and the latter, his wife, is a writer who used to work for the Smithsonian's Office of Public Affairs. Their major San Francisco-based project together to date has been the renovation of the Old Mint building in downtown San Francisco, but they also have experience with museums: Bob Mendelsohn helped direct the design and construction of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C..
This proposal has the backing of a slew of local service providers such as the police, sheriff and emergency medical departments, public-minded local organizations like the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and even big businesses like Chevron. But while the Mendelsohns have experience with museums, which strengthens their case, the plan is considered less well-organized financially than the previous two. Notably, the San Francisco Museum at the Mint never got off the ground after eleven years, despite having a rent-free lease that entire time. (The organization was kicked out of the space last August without ever opening its doors.)
The three finalists were invited to submitted more-detailed proposals by May 20, 2016 based on a request for proposals that will be finalized by next month. SF Rec and Parks expects to reach a final decision in the next three years.