A historical landmark is the Alexandra Theater on Geary Blvd in San Francisco's Richmond District. While many people say they want to save it, the fact that it is a historical landmark might be the aspect to it that is keeping it from being restored.
"It is sad because this grand old theater has become an eyesore," said long-time Richmond District resident Jean Barish. Built in the 1920's in the glory days of movie palaces the Alexandria was one of the City's grandest neighborhood theaters. Designed by the Reid Brothers, the corner-structure at 18th Ave and Geary was fashioned in style like that of an ancient Egyptian Palace. When the theater opened in 1923 it has magnificent columns, lotus motifs with hieroglyphics. At its height, it was host to some of the greatest movies shown on screen such as "South Pacific," "Exodus" and "Cleopatra" just to name a few. Each feature remained at the Alexandria for as much as two to three months. The movie "Cleopatra" was shown for over a year.
It got remodeled in the 1940s and upgraded in the 1950's to accommodate the new advances is cinematography and "stereophonic" sound. In the 1970's the Alexandria, like many grand old cinemas got remodeled again to create three screens instead of just one. The days of it as a multi-plex theater is now a faded memory. The musty smell of dry rot was evident in the 1990's as it was in need of repair even then. Changing times and the advent of VHS and digital technology took hold, the Alexandria like so many local theaters needed help. But some observers like Ray Holland of the neighborhood group Planning Association for The Richmond fear that help may have arrived too late.
Since the Alexandria closed in 2004 its future has been uncertain. "There has been talk of subdividing the building," said Holland. But those ideas have been tossed around and around for almost a decade now. The local YMCA has been encouraged to occupy the space. But the issue of renovation costs stand in the way. That was the case when Rrazz Room owners Rory Paull and Robert Kotonly considered other performance venues in San Francisco. The prominence of the corner-building on such a busy merchant corridor like Geary offers great potential. "I am all for the Alexandria being restored, renovated. But it will take a real serious commitment," said David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Blvd Merchants Association. Familiar with all the processes of City Hall and local government, Heller knows well the routine of getting permits, holding public hearings and getting local support.
Built in 1923, the Alexandria Theater was among the City's treasured movie palaces. Yet as the years have gone by, the theater has fallen into neglect. City officials the current owners a developer LLC group can renovate and restore it as they have been granted a "mixed use" permit.
The difficulty is finding the right solution, while respecting the historical integrity of the building. Not an easy task. "Some ideas presented were crazy," said Holland. The current difficulty right now is that the owners seem ambivalent. "The Alexandria is owned by several people, as a development company, LLC, some of whom are out of the country," said Holland. He noted that the owners "seem to stay anonymous;" each time we meet with someone representing them, it is a new person. One time it was someone from a law firm, another time it was an architectural firm. It's very strange," Holland said.
Barish wanted to know if Richmond District Supervisor Mar was keeping track of the situation. Talking to a legislative aid in Mar's office, Nickolas Pagoulatos said the permit the theater owners have now is that of a "mixed use, with the prospect of housing and commercial space included." He also said that while the ideal goal is to allow the Alexandria to continue as a theater in someway, "it has been dubious at this point," said Pagoulatos. The supervisor's office in conjunction with other City officials has been trying to find a good tenant to help with keeping the building from being neglected while the developers figure out their plans. "We brought Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (a regional franchise headquartered in Texas) to the developers but the LLC said no," said Pagoulatos. "There seems to be a division among the owners and they refused to proceed with this," he said.
Holland mentioned that different things are said about what might be the intended plans. "But these are all just skiddish rumors." Holland, like others reiterated that if any owner wants to save the theater it would have to be a serious investor. The only way City officials can intervene is to make sure the developers are in compliance with the current mixed use permit. "The permit was granted on the contingency that no graffiti or vandalism would be allowed to impact the site," said Pagoulatos. That translates to the developer LLC providing some sort of security team to keep vigil. "The owners have seemed to spruce up the place a bit," said Holland. "And, I have not heard any complaints lately."
Barish disagreed saying I've heard from many people who are very upset about the problem at the theater." "I've spoken to local small businesses and neighbors, she said, all of whom are not happy with the blight." The woman who works in Kawaii Corner (the Hello Kitty store) adjacent to the theater, who wants to remain anonymous, noted Barish, has said she's seen rats and it's hurt her business." "But, said Barish she's afraid to complain for fear of losing her lease. It's not a pretty situation, Barish said.
Holland hopes that the City will offer to buy the theater and its adjacent lot and take over. "This project has been very hard, said Pagoulatos, because the developer LLC owns the property. All the City can do at this point is ensure that the developers are in compliance with the mixed use permit. If the developers give up that might as Pagoulatos said, "knock everything back to 'square one' and with this situation it is hard to figure out where the City should be pushing the hardest."