First look at the Alexandria Theater project plans

Supervisor Mar and his staff hosted a public meeting tonight at the Richmond District YMCA about the proposed development for the Alexandria Theater property at 18th Avenue and Geary. The property has been unused, with the exception of two retail stores on the Geary side, since the theater closed in February 2004.

About 30 residents attended the meeting. Representing the city were Supervisor Eric Mar, Planning Commission President Ron Miguel, and Planning Department Project Manager Mary Woods. There were also two representatives from the development team including Project Consultant Drake Gardener.

The development consists of two parts – 1) remodeling the existing theater building and 2) New construction on the back lock behind the theater (which is currently a parking lot).

The theater building’s facade will be left as is with cosmetic improvements. Inside they will refurbish the lobby area and build in spaces for retail businesses that will face out on both 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. The ground floor retail spaces are flexible in that they can be configured for several retailers, or combined for one larger retailer.

The original art deco staircase inside the lobby will be left intact and on the second level will be a 245-seat theater suitable for movies or performances (stage included). No theater chain has signed on yet for the space, but the 4-Star Theater here in the Richmond has expressed interest according to Supervisor Mar.

Inside the building, they will restore the original art deco ceiling, murals and other decoration. On the second level with the theater will be additional retail space, possibly for a restaurant but suitable for any retail operation.

We did not see the interior plans in detail, so it was a little confusing how they plan to have the theater on the second level as well as some retail space. They described the theater as being at the balcony level of the original single-screen theater, and that it would be free-standing in the middle of the building with hallways and retail space around the theater.

For the new construction portion of the project, they will erect a 4 story building on what is now the back parking lot. They will excavate beneath the lot for a two level underground parking lot which will serve both the commercial theater building and the residential complex.

The ground floor of the new building accomodates 20,000 square feet of retail space. Like the theater building, this space is flexible and can accomodate multiple, small retailers or be used for one or two larger businesses. The Richmond District YMCA, which currently sits across the street, may consider taking over the entire ground floor of this new building as it would effectively double their space.

Above the ground floor would be three floors of condominiums, 46 units in total, of which 7 will be priced below market value for affordable housing. The building will also include an interior courtyard, a rear yard, as well as a rooftop deck.

The Egyptian style decor of the theater building will not be carried over into the new building, but a patio will sit between them on 18th Avenue, tying the two structures together. The patio will be public space and plans include moveable tables and chairs, concrete seat walls, bike racks and landscaping. New trees and landscaping will be installed around both buildings along 18th Avenue and Geary.

One resident suggested that the developers consider landscaping with palm trees in keeping with the Alexandria’s Egyptian theme. Project Consultant Drake Gardener responded that their original plans included palm trees but the Planning Department nixed it.

Mary Woods, Project Manager for the Planning Department, explained that it was not approved because they felt palm trees were out of scale for the surrounding sidewalks, especially along 18th Avenue. This caused a burst of chatter in the room as attendees pointed out there is more than just one type of palm tree.

One question that came up repeatedly, but was never really answered: Why did this project take 5 years to come together? Gardener said there were delays in the environmental review in the Planning Department; Mary Woods of the Planning Department then stood up and said the delay was due to changes in department staff, changes in the proposed development (e.g. the developer’s fault), a transportation study and more.

The project is currently awaiting environmental review and approval from the Planning Department. The Planning Department expects to give the project a Mitigated Negative Declaration, signaling that there are only small changes necessary to overcome any environmental impacts of the project. Usually this signifies that the project is OK under California Environmental Qualities Act (CEQA) provided minor changes are made to the project to mitigate relatively small environmental issues.

Assuming there are no hiccups in the planning approval process, Gardener estimated that construction would begin in spring 2011.

There were several architectural and historical theater advocates at the meeting. One of them suggested that the developers open up the property one last time to allow residents to take a historical tour. When the theater was renovated in the 1940s, much of the original architecture built by the Reid Brothers was covered up, but not destroyed. From certain vantage points inside the building, like the attic, you can still see the old papyrus columns and other Egyptian details.

It’s expected that there will be another, larger public meeting about the project where Gardener will share more detailed plans for the development. When we hear about it, we’ll be sure to let you know here on the blog.

In the meantime, to help battle the blight, developers are working on a plan to fence off the theater’s corner cutover area that has become a homeless hangout and informal neighborhood urinal. They are also actively searching for a new tenant to fill the retail space on Geary that was last occupied by a wedding store. Much to the relief of young girls in the Richmond, there are no plans for the Hello Kitty store in the other retail space to close.

Sarah B.

All drawings by Tanaka Design Group.

The patio that will sit between the two buildings.

The back lot behind the Alexandria Theater. The YMCA sits across the street.


  1. Thanks Sarah, great article. We FINALLY have some information and have gotten the ball rolling on the public input for this large project. You are correct, left unanswered was the delay. We want to move forward quickly was repeated many times by the developer and others at the meeting. At the next meeting perhaps an MTA person will be there and we’ll discover if the city has parking meter plans for the many spaces out front of the new apartments.

    It was heartening to see the many neighbors turned out after so long and yes there are still movie theater lovers out there, down with DVD’s!

  2. Excellent summary of the meeting Sarah. Thanks for spreading the word.

  3. Great meeting you in person, Bob! See you at the next meeting,

    Sarah B. 🙂

  4. They should consider approaching the Sundance Kabuki people about running the movie theater. Not sure how you handle the increased traffic to the neighborhood with a new theater/performance venue without providing additional parking and removing what parking there was.

  5. I am looking forward to the walk-through. I am the Regional Director of the Theatre Historical Society of America who was at the meeting Thursday who told about the Egyptian decor hidden behind walls–most specifically, the row of papyrus columns behind the present lobby wall on the Left as you enter, which can be viewed through the light recepticle over the drinking fountain. With our host’s permission, I hope that we can take a look, though it will have to be one at a time. I believe there is a creative way in which these Egyptian features can be preserved in situ, and have them viewable through new windows in the lobby walls, while still fully respecting the 1940s decor. Such a thing has been done in the Empire Theatre (now a megaplex) on 42nd Street in New York. Katherine Petrin and I were discussing the window option (which she brought-up first), while talking after the meeting.
    Also, I am happy and willing to create an illustration which will show comparative views of palm trees versus deciduous trees (the latter which will eventually hide the very building we seek to celebrate). I can provide research on various types of smaller, more graceful palms which would work beautifully. I agree with the Planning Department Staff that large date palms such as exist on the Embarcadero would be completely inappropriate.
    I would also like to thank Supervisor Mar for the warm welcome he extended to me and my input at the conclusion of the meeting.

  6. Since the Alexandria Theatre project is years behind schedule why not delay it and rethink the effort to really save the movie palace: create a joint partnership between George Lucas (Letterman Digital) and David Gockley (S.F. Opera) for the purchase, renovation, and utilization of the now-tarnished Alexandria. These men could form a winning team to use the theatre in at least two capacities: (1) for simulcast and filmed versions of S.F. Opera productions and (2) for retrospective screenings of Mr. Lucas’s STAR WARS films, INDIANA JONES series, and other Lucas films of the director’s choice. Granted, the financial plans would need to be formulated by both the City of San Francisco and Mr. Lucas so that there are both financial and civic incentives for both parties. The artistic and financiall acumen of both gentlemen are legendary–why not be bold and provide the city with an unique
    venture for popular and classical arts while saving a once beautiful, thriving theatre?

  7. 200 seats is way to small, as they will just use the former balcony i guess for the new theatre. This new theatre needs to be about 500/600 seats With a big curved screen with curtains that work. Bring back the Egyptian look on the walls and main curtain. I think the original balcony had was a stadium style slant up type of seating. Why does the theatre have to used for something else on the main floor. Don’t turn this palace into another Marina Theatre with a small screen and very little seating. Bring in some showmanship and let them build the condos and commercial shops in the back parking lot. It’s time to turn the neon on again on this great SF treasure.

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