NOVEMBER 17, 2008

A coalition of community and theater organizations and just plain folks joined the Friends of 1800 at the Planning Commission hearing last Thursday, November 13, to ask the Planning Commission to require an Environmental Impact Report for the Harding Theater conversion project. After two hours of testimony, the Commission voted 7-0 to uphold the Friends’ appeal and require an EIR.

The Commission’s ruling is a big win for the Western Addition, the North of Panhandle neighborhood, for San Francisco’s theater community, and of course for the Harding Theater. Arts and community advocates testified to the pressing need for performance space, the performing arts potential of the Harding, and the prospects for the Harding rising again as the community and cultural anchor for Divisadero Street. Supporting organizations included the Brava Theater, the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, Theater Bay Area, the Garage, the Magic Theater, Metro Theater Foundation, and the Independent.

The Friends had appealed the Planning Department’s proposed “mitigated negative declaration” and asked for a full environmental review, including an investigation of live performance alternatives for the theater, which includes a full stage house. The project proposes to convert the Harding into condominiums and commercial space. The conversion includes demolishing the 1926 live performance stage house, and leveling the auditorium floor and removing all seats to build a 35-car capacity underground parking garage. The auditorium would be partitioned into several separate commercial spaces.

The Friends expected development expediency, not law, more likely to rule the day. But the Commissioners listened closely to two hours of testimony from approximately 30 speakers, who overwhelming supported requiring an EIR, and responded with a thoughtful, responsible, and far-sighted decision. The Friends applaud the entire Planning Commission for their wisdom and courage.

The highlight of the Commissioners’ deliberations was Commissioner Bill Sugaya’s extended and learned analysis of the adverse impacts of the project on the stage house, auditorium, lobby, and other character-defining features of the historic theater. The Commissioners voted one by one, culminating in a unanimous vote in support of full environmental review of the project.

The Friends Board of Directors initiated and supported the appeal throughout: Mark Paez, Vincent Marsh, Judith Hoyem, Dennis Richards, Melinda Milligan, Aaron Hyland, Cynthia Servetnick, and Ted Whipple.

An entirely volunteer pro bono effort supported the appeal:

Legal Advocate: Arthur Levy of Levy, Ram & Olson

Architectural Historian: Christopher VerPlanck of Kelley & VerPlanck

Theater Architectural Historian: Gary Lee Parks

Architectural Consultants: Michael Garavaglia & Shiela McElroy of Garavaglia Architecture

The Friends also acknowledge special thanks to:
Jim Bracken, Sheila Dewitt, Joe Landini, Heidi Sieck, David Tornheim, Clare Hyland, Ron Merk, Richard Reineccius, and the theater organizations mentioned above for their critical and generous support.


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