In a close vote, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has voted against designating the orchestra-level seats in the iconic Castro Theatre as a historical landmark.

Supervisors voted 6-4 to landmark parts of the interior of the Castro Theatre — the city’s oldest and longest operating single-screen movie house — but not include the theater seats that its management wants to remove.

The decision comes as event organizer and theater manager Another Planet Entertainment has been vying to make space more into a live entertainment venue and less of a movie theatre — which includes replacing seats with temporary seats and flat platforms for standing-room only events.

People move about the interior of the Castro Theatre on April 29, 2012. The theater's management company, Another Planet Entertainment, wants to convert the original fixed seating into stackable seats that could be removed for live events. (Fabian Breckels/Cinema Treasures, CC BY)

Organizations like the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District and the Castro Theatre Conservancy banded together in protest against the APE’s plans by creating the Friends of the Castro Theatre Coalition. Activists say the fixed theatrical seating is as character-defining as the building’s exterior, which first received landmark status decades ago.

Last week, the Castro Merchants Association, a group that also previously detested the plans, also voted to no longer oppose the renovations.

Practicing ‘good preservation hygiene’

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro neighborhood, said the change of mind comes as a “matter of good preservation hygiene,” regardless of any current proposals for the building, after he requested the Historic Preservation Commission to review and make recommendations about the designation.

He said both supporters and opponents of the APE project have used landmarking “as an opportunity to pre-litigate the merits of the APE project,” and that he is not comfortable making seats a landmark if the intention is to kill the project before it even gets a chance to be heard.

“Reasonable minds can disagree on the different visions for the Castro Theatre, and the likelihood of some alternative to the APE project being able to proceed in a way that will not result in an indefinitely shuttered Castro Theatre,” Mandelman said.

“It’s important to note that physical seats are not what brings the Castro to life, people do. ... A theater completely preserved in amber and closed will not help the Castro neighborhood — a thriving theater will.”

Supervisor Joel Engardio

Supervisor Ahsha Safai said that as a city planner and the son of an architect, he is for progress and preservation simultaneously, and voted in favor of APE’s plans.

Supervisor Joel Engardio said that the Castro Theatre does need to be saved, but it is not going to happen by landmarking fixed seats: it needs to be able to offer a wide variety of events to stay alive.

“It’s important to note that physical seats are not what brings the Castro to life, people do. That’s why we must create spaces where a new generation can make new memories in a magnificent old building outfitted for the future,” he said. “A theater completely preserved in amber and closed will not help the Castro neighborhood — a thriving theater will.”

A warning from the past

During the meeting, opponent Supervisor Aaron Peskin quoted a 1977 letter from Harvey Milk that urged the preservation of the Castro Theatre, warning that landmarks can never return once they’re gone.

He added that APE will need to invite the Castro’s vibrant community into the conversation to gain support, rather than pick it apart.

“I believe that unless a genuine effort is made to develop robust and enforceable condition of APE’s use with real community oversight, this is a rift that will last and not be healed for a long, long time,” Peskin said.

Supervisor Dean Preston, who also voted in opposition to the measure, said APE could still find a way to better preserve the theatre while making the space more accommodating to live events.

“Or if they don’t want to, they can make space for someone else to come in, as many community groups have suggested,” he said.

The San Francisco Planning Commission and the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission were scheduled to host a joint meeting during the week to vote on whether APE is permitted to add a bar, tiered seating and other changes to the theater’s interior.