Politics at Play in New Push for S.F. to Buy Pagoda Palace Theater Site

A scene from the demolition of the Pagoda Palace Theater in 2013. (Courtesy of SFMTA)

Two San Francisco supervisors want the city to buy the site of the old Pagoda Palace Theater in North Beach to help pave the way for a possible future expansion of the city's Central Subway.

The push to purchase the site comes as its owner moves forward on turning the area into a home for 19 luxury condominiums, a move some believe could slow efforts to extend the Central Subway Project all the way to Fisherman's Wharf.

Supervisors Julie Christensen and Scott Wiener on Thursday directed the San Francisco Department of Real Estate to appraise the site so that city officials could start talks with the owner.

"We'd like to see it stay in play in the hopes that it could become a critical component of our efforts to extend the subway," Christensen, who represents the area, said Thursday.

Christensen and Wiener, who recently unveiled his push to expand subway service citywide, want the site at Columbus and Powell streets to become a construction staging area and eventually an entrance for a subway station.

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"The Pagoda theater is a critical site and the city needs to get it together and purchase it," Wiener said in a statement. "We can't bury our heads in the sand and let this opportunity to purchase the site slip away."

The Pagoda Palace Theater was demolished in 2013, and boring machines for the subway project were extracted at the site. The parcel is also a rare undeveloped space in North Beach.

"There are no more large open parcels in the district," Christensen said. "The fact that this one is vacant is a very unique opportunity."

Christensen said the time is now for the city to move forward, even if the site is expensive.

"What will it cost us if we don't do this now?" she said.

But a representative for the site's owner said he wants construction on the housing project to begin soon. Martin Kirkwood, a real state broker for owner Joel Campos, said the city should look elsewhere.

"There are several other alternative sites in North Beach for a subway station which are not about to be changed to new housing stock," Kirkwood said in an email. "There are politicians talking about it right now, but it's campaign season."

Wiener is running for a seat in the state Senate and Christensen is campaigning to keep her seat on the board against former Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

Peskin agrees with Christensen that the project should eventually be expanded to Fisherman's Wharf and that the city should consider buying the Pagoda site, but he cautions against moving too fast.

"If the city rushes to do that, they may end up paying too high a price," Peskin said. "I am skeptical that the development is imminent."

He added, "I think this is a ploy by the owner of that property to get top dollar."

Christensen's proposal could help her election chances, said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

"It clearly signals her strong support for the Central Subway, which is very popular in that district and especially in the Asian-American community," McDaniel said in an email.