The American Conservatory Theater plans to break ground Oct. 2 on the restoration of San Francisco's Strand Theatre.
The $30 million project will be a dramatic moment for arts companies that have been trying to remake Mid-Market – one of the city’s funkiest neighborhoods – into a theater and arts district.
Market Street at night was once ablaze with the marquees of vaudeville houses, movie theaters and dancehalls like the Gaiety, the Hub, the Odeon and the Paris.
"This street used to be like the Great White Way in the '50s, lit up with theaters up and down Market Street," says Carey Perloff, artistic director of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
The abandoned Strand Theatre, at 1127 Market between Seventh and Eighth streets, was built under the name The Jewel in 1917.
"This was a single-screen movie theater, and then it did repertory, and then it did bingo, then it did 'Rocky Horror Show,' then it did a lot of porn," Perloff said. "And then it was sealed up in 2003 by the police. And when we first walked in, it was just covered by dead birds and other things."
Inside, the theater is filled with rubble. The air is thick with plaster dust, and you can smell the mold from the groaty, old green seats.
Perloff points out graffiti of a hypodermic needle and the words “junkies for life” painted on the wall.
A.C.T. is the one of the Bay Area’s biggest repertory companies, known for its thousand-seat Geary Theater near Union Square. But the company has long sought a smaller space for more experimental projects and plays by its conservatory students. So Perloff wants to carve the Strand into two small theaters, plus an all-day café and bar in the lobby.
"So there will be a huge gathering space," she said. "And what we really felt is the most important thing is to have life on the street level.
It's still a gritty street with panhandlers, hustlers and drug users. But Mid-Market is also caught in a tug of war between arts companies looking for cheap rents and high-tech firms like Twitter and Zendesk who have moved to Market Street to cash in on a tax break from the city.
Despite that challenge, there’s another arts success story in the making, a few blocks from the Strand. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre lost its stage a few years ago, and now its artistic director, Steven Anthony Jones, looks to share in plans by a developer and a number of foundations to convert a pair of rundown properties at 950 Market Street into an arts and education center. The center, where Mid-Market meets the Tenderloin, would include four small theaters.
Jones thinks the tech companies and arts producers can make good neighbors. "Those people have to do something in the evening and on the weekends. This has to be more than just a place where people come to work."
The literacy group Youth Speaks and others arts groups are looking to move in, seeking shelter from rising rents – afraid they'll be priced right out of San Francisco. A.C.T.'s Executive Director Ellen Richard says that's even true for her company, which wants to move its offices to 950 Market.
"We just lost 12,000 square feet because the rental prices went up 50 percent. The market in San Francisco has just kind of gone berserk the last couple of years."
Elvin Padilla has helped make 950 Market and the Strand projects happen, as the former executive director, and now consultant, for the Tenderloin Economic Development Project. One goal is to avoid a polarized landscape of haves and have-nots: well-paid techies versus the immigrant families that populate the Tenderloin.
"The arts are a way for us to all have a place where we can meet," Padilla said. "And where we can share human experiences like music and dance and literacy. And we think that is vital for a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city."
Padilla applauds efforts by Mayor Ed Lee and other city leaders to lobby for the arts in Mid-Market. But he notes A.C.T. is raising the $30 million it needs for the Strand on its own, and that even the 950 Market project could fail without city support.
"If we want to see something different, a diversity of uses beyond a generic office mall that the free market will be most happy to supply, we have to intervene. All cities either provide land or provide funding, or in some instances both. There’s been no funding and there’s been no land."
The new owners of 950 Market, for instance, are facing millions of dollars in city fees. A few officials are listening, though. Supervisor Jane Kim represents Mid-Market, and she’s working on a measure to create an arts special-use district that would reduce developer fees on space reserved for nonprofits arts. It's the kind of break that could help a Mid-Market arts company like Alonzo King's LINES Ballet, which rehearses in a building without heat or hot water.
As LINES director Janette Gitler told me, it would be very sad if the city’s success in bringing companies to Mid-Market means arts groups like hers have to move out.