After thoroughly investigating the Harding Theater, Ron Merk, independent film producer, director, writer, distributor and founder of the Metro Theater Center Foundation, wholeheartedly supports the reuse of the theater for performances, movies, and community assembly. His letter reprinted below of 11/13/08 was sent to the San Francisco Planning Commission.
As the Executive Director of The Metro Theater Center Foundation, a non-profit set up in 2003 for the purpose of acquiring, modernizing and programming a theater in San Francisco, with both live and film events, and to provide a voice for all parts of the community, I'm quite familiar with what has been happening to larger theater spaces in the City.
I've testified before Supervisor McGoldrick's hearing regarding the 4 Star Theater, and Supervisor Peskin's hearing regarding the law which sought to slow down the change of use for single screen theaters.
I was one of the core members working on the No on Prop L ("Save Our Theaters"), a ballot measure that was soundly defeated by the voters, and which the entire Board of Supervisors and most of the arts community wisely opposed.
What I keep hearing from the city is that "we're for saving these endangered theaters," but nothing seems to stem the tide of their destruction. What we really need to look at is what the loss of theaters means to a neighborhood and the city.
The Harding, no matter what the developers may want to call it, is a theater. It's one of the very few surviving vaudeville theaters in the State of California. If you haven't been there to see it, I have to tell you that it is a great vast space that still has the power to awe the viewer.
The real problem is that most of San Francisco's remaining theaters are in private hands—private hands which really have no restrictions. We've lost more than 30 theaters since 1980.
Following best practices of other communities who have retained theaters as vital economic drivers for neighborhoods, we need to explore successful models that make our theaters vital again. They can protect cultural and arts diversity, serve the needs of the neighborhood, and become economic engines for the surrounding area.
The so-called solution that's been proposed in order to save part of the Harding, that is, cutting off the stage of the theater in order to develop condos, is a veritable Solomonic compromise, one unfortunately that will kill the baby.
As pmi of my investigation into this theater as a possible venue for our organization, I sent two architects with whom I've been working (one one whom was the principal designer on the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, which is a great example of saving an endangered theater) to see the space and give me their opinion of what could be developed if the stage was lopped off. We created some possible floor plans and cost estimates. We discovered that the loss of the stage (and what is a theater without a stage?) and the high fly above the stage, will certainly doom this building to piece by piece demolition. In our opinion, no viable performance or public gathering space option could be created in the remaining area at reasonable cost. Any financial model that could be developed crumbles faster than the building would under the wrecking ball.
However, we have looked at the idea of saving the theater as is, and we are interested in doing this, but we would need the building exactly as it stands. Complete and untouched.
It is our further opinion that a consortium of user/partners could turn this now-empty space into a showcase for independent theater, music, dance and film, as well as a means of maintaining racial diversity in the Western Addition.
e have already identified a number of partners, all of them non-profits with substantial history and roots in the community, and many of whom are seriously in need of a "house of their own" in which to perform or present stimulating independent work. A non-profit organization would manage the theater venue for a multiplicity of both for-profit and non-profit users. Despite all the nay-saying about economic viability, this can be a win-win situation all around.
In order to accomplish this plan, two things are needed, time and money. This commission can give us the time by not allowing the condo project to move forward. If the theater could be purchased at a reasonable price (giving the present owners a profit on their investment and some tax benefits, too) and to raise the money needed to upgrade the building, properly equip it for the various uses, including new stage craft, digital and film projection, lighting, sound, HVAC, A.D.A. work (including an elevator to the balcony) and new seats, we believe that The Harding Theater has a long life still ahead of it. We, and a number of other organizations are quite prepared to sit down with the owners and work this out. So, before the Planning Commission allows one more theater to become a Walgreens or condos, I urge you to recommend the Environmental Impact Report, including an assessment of feasible performance options for this site. The EIR should look at the negative impacts on the historic building itself, as well as identify potential uses that could protect this performance and community gathering space for the Divisadero community.
We've lost too much of our City's history, especially its theater history, to developers. The city has to do something about its lamentable record of saving these valuable community resources. It's time to think of the good of the many rather than the profit of the few.
Visitors come to San Francisco to see our great city, with the arts and theater being a big draw.
There was a time when San Francisco was surrounded by giant redwoods. In the name of progress they were cut down. Generations to come did not miss the redwoods, because they didn't know of their existence. In the same way, San Francisco used to have these beautiful theaters scattered through every neighborhood. Today, only a few theaters remain. They are an equally rare resource, and deserve to be saved.
It's time to take a stand, to draw the line in the sand, and say to developers, The City of San Francisco would like to save The Harding Theater.
Ron Merk, Executive Director
The Metro Theater Center Foundation