FROM THE SF CHRONICLE: After languishing in intermission for years, the nearly century-old Strand Theatre in downtown San Francisco is poised to re-enter the spotlight.
And spectators hope the rest of Mid-Market will follow suit.
On Tuesday, the American Conservatory Theater bought the vacant, deteriorating building, which opened in 1917. The local performing arts company had been seeking a second stage to complement its theater nearby on Geary Street.
The 800-seat Strand has lived through multiple incarnations – first as a cinema, then an adult theater – before closing around 2006. Now, ACT plans to revive it as a 300-seat venue.
“It’s just got the right proportions,” said ACT Executive Director Ellen Richard of the 8,250-square-foot space. “It’s in a great location up at U.N. Plaza, and I think it gives us a lot of visibility on Market Street.”
Actors, including students in ACT’s master of fine arts program, will take the stage in the renovated theater, which is near the Civic Center BART Station. The theater will get seismic upgrades, a restaurant, rehearsal rooms and a space for readings.
Take artistic risks
“This is a great chance to have a small, more intimate space in which we can take the kinds of artistic risks on new material and young artists and new forms that are more challenging to do in a 1,000-seat theater,” said Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director.
The total cost of the purchase and renovation is $18 million, which will be paid for in part by a fundraising campaign and a donation from Jeff Ubben, an ACT board member and a founder of the investment firm ValueAct Capital.
The property is part of ACT’s expanding presence downtown. In addition to operating its century-old theater at Geary and Mason streets, it recently opened a store, the Costume Shop, at nearby 1117 Market St. It also plans to open a space at 950 Market St. with offices, studios and housing for actors.
Neighborhood in transition
A revamped Strand – which probably will be renamed – could be the latest major step in reviving the gritty neighborhood.
The slice of Market Street between Fifth and 11th streets still struggles with crime, homelessness and stalled projects like the CityPlace mall. The vacancy rates for retail and office space are the city’s highest, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
But signs of life have recently emerged in the neighborhood, with the opening of Pearl’s Deluxe Burgers, Dottie’s True Blue Cafe and the main office of the Burning Man festival. This year, the microblogging giant Twitter expects to move its headquarters to 10th and Market streets.
“You can feel the excitement for arts reinvigorating the neighborhood,” said Mayor Ed Lee, who will announce the Strand sale today. “It’s not just tech companies that are helping to revive Central Market.”
A long slide down
Located at 1127 Market St., the Strand sits on the periphery of a cluster of cultural hot spots that include the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Symphony and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. The Strand itself was a destination for years after its opening.
“It’s very significant in that Market Street obviously was the center of filmgoing in San Francisco for decades,” said Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, a community group dedicated to preserving the city’s historic cinemas.
Later, however, declining attendance and crime took a toll on the property – which by the 1990s was an adult theater that drew homeless people and drug addicts.
But Mark Casagranda, who bought the Strand in 1998 and sold it to ACT, said he doesn’t expect those problems to haunt the new owners “because the area has changed so dramatically.”
“ACT is coming in and making a huge contribution, but it’s that last push over the hill,” he said. “Now there’s demand from so many sectors. Twitter, Burning Man – people are scrambling to find a place to buy, to say, ‘Well, I got to Mid-Market early.’ It’s not early. It’s the fourth quarter.”