10th anniversary of Alexandria Theater closing. When will the blight end?

The Alexandria Theater at 5400 Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue. And yes, we 311’d “le poop”.

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Alexandria Theater on the corner of Geary and 18th Avenue. The decade since its closing has been one of ongoing neighborhood blight, with the building slowly deteriorating and suffering from vandalism, as promised development plans never get underway.

The theater was opened in 1923 by Samuel Levin, a movie theater entrepreneur who was in business with his two brothers, Alex and Joseph. It was noteworthy for being the first theater to install a sloped floor for better viewing from every seat.

But the building is best known for its architectural fathers, the well-known Reid Brothers, who designed the movie house with an Egyptian theme, mixing elements of ancient Egypt, Minoan culture, and classical detailing. The brothers designed upwards of twenty movie houses in San Francisco, including the Balboa Theater.

In 1941, the theater underwent extensive remodeling and all that really remained of the original design were the stone pillars on its facade. United Artists then purchased the theater in 1976, converting it from a single screen theater into a 3-screen multiplex.

The Alexandria Theater, 1942

Interior of the theater, 1942

The theater, after struggling financially, closed on February 16, 2004 – one week after being sold to a group of investors, Alexandria Enterprises LLC, which owns it today. [SF Heritage]

Photos of the inside of the Alexandria just before it closed

Since its closing, the theater has been a source of blight for the neighborhood. A favorite for graffiti hounds, the walls along 18th Avenue and the entrance are often tagged.

Trash collected in the entrance to the theater and vagrants sometimes slept out in front of the theater under its protected alcove. Ownership resorted to erecting unsightly cyclone fencing around the front entrance, and throughout the last 10 years, trespassers have broken into the abandoned building and squatted for periods of time, one time causing a small fire.

The exterior of the building has had its share of travails as well. In April 2011, high winds unhinged the blade marquee of the theater. Repairs were made and the sign finally got a much needed, fresh coat of paint. High winds caused more damage two years later.

The decaying entrance alcove to the theater, featuring a peeling, water-damaged ceiling

So what do the Alexandria owners plan to do with the aging building?

For the last few years, plans have been shared with the community for a new development on the property, which would include a 221 seat theater and commercial retail space in the theater building, and a mixed use development on the back parking lot with retail space on the ground floor, residential units above, and underground parking.

The proposed development would preserve original architectural elements of the art deco building, including the domed roof that was part of the original theater before it was sectioned off when it became a multiplex. The ornamental decoration on the facade of the theater building would also remain, including the blade sign (though the 1-2-3 numbers would be removed from the sign, an addition made in 1976).

The plans also indicate that some (or all?) of the original murals inside the building would also be preserved and on view.

The last update we received on the project was in late April 2013, when the city approved the final plans for the development (PDF).

But to this day, no work has started on the property. A quick search of the records at SFDBI shows that no new building, electrical or plumbing permits have been filed since the project approval came through.

“The Planning Commission’s approval is good for three years. Within that period, a building permit needs to be filed and issued. Once a permit is issued, the Department of Building Inspection or Building Department may grant extensions to start work and to complete work if the sponsor needed additional construction time,” Mary Woods of the Planning Department told us last April.

The back lot of the Alexandria Theater on 18th Avenue. The proposed redevelopment includes
building a 4 story residential building on the back lot.

At various times, the property has been for sale to the right developer. This expired listing from Marcus & Millchap Real Estate Investment Services was last updated over a year ago, and references the “Project Near Full Entitlement from City of San Francisco”.

Let’s not forget the illegal drama regarding the building’s plans and permits. In 2010, Jimmy Jen, a formerly licensed civil engineer, was arrested for allegedly forging the signatures and stamps of two licensed engineers on documents related to more than 100 construction projects throughout the city between 1990 and 2007, including those of the Alexandria development project.

Jen was often hired as an “expediter” for projects to move them through city approval channels more quickly. Rather than hiring a licensed engineer to review his clients’ construction projects, he allegedly impersonated unwitting engineers.

Jen’s ex-wife, Nancy Jen, was also reportedly the largest stakeholder in the Alexandria Theater project. [SF Examiner] Jen’s case went to trial in July 2013, but we were unable to find the outcome. But his wrongdoings on the Alexandria development’s paperwork did not hinder the project according to city officials.

At this point, most residents have an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude about the Alexandria Theater redevelopment. After 10 years of neglect, it’s time for this large neighborhood landmark to be rehabilitated and put back into use.

Let’s hope that the owners and developers don’t wait until day 1,094 of their three year permit period to get started. Or worse yet, abandon the project altogether, leaving the Alexandria to continue its decade plus run as a neighborhood eyesore.

Sarah B.

See more photos of blight at the Alexandria Theater

A rendition of the planned development at the Alexandria Theater

The proposed residential apartments that would be built on the lot behind the Alexandria on 18th Avenue


  1. Thank you Sarah, a great article and a reminder of the continuing blight to this stretch of Geary and the Richmond.

    I would really like to know who the investors that comprise Alexandria Enterprises LLC are. They hide behind the LLC designation because they have no interest in the neighborhood. They have demonstrated this by the atrocious upkeep of this property and keeping it idle and unproductive for this last decade. Clearly they are only interested in maximizing their return. Can someone force their hand?
    Unfortunately their entitlement is for 3 years which presumably dates from mid 2013. So we must put up with this blight to 2016?

    You mention that Nancy Jen is believed to be the major stakeholder. I see that she is a local realtor based in the Sunset. It is too bad that the community has not had much involvement and participation in planning what to do with this land which has so much potential to create housing and community serving enterprises.

  2. But eric mar said he’d fix everything…Just like how he solved the problem of the Jack in the Box on 10th Ave.

    Oh, and let’s not forget how well he handled all those ADA lawsuits.

  3. I met the representative of the building’s owners and the lead architect behind the project when I went to the most recent planning commission meeting. It was clear from talking to them that neither of them really cared at all about the project. When I tried to engage them after the meeting I was quickly blown off. I did manage to walk away with a few business cards though. The logo on the representative’s business card is the same as one a sign in the window of the kitchen sink store or whatever that is on the side of the theater facing Geary, next to Kawai Corner. I suggest if you have a moment going in there (if there are ever actually people in there) and try talking to someone in person. Maybe if enough angry community members go in there and bug them we’ll start to see results. I doubt it though. If the attitudes of the people I talked to at city hall were any indication I wouldn’t expect to see anything change any time soon.

  4. Also, I’d like to add that the plan the came up with, the weird mall/restaurant/theater/Frankenstein’s monster they want to build, I think it’s a terrible idea. This neighborhood has enough empty retail space to fill. I say ditch the retail space and combine the theater and the restaurant. In the main auditorium you’d have theater seats with bar tables facing the movie screen. Play second-run films and sell dirt cheap tickets. In the lobby sell traditional movie fare, restaurant food like pizza, burgers, etc. and wine and beer. With this set up the auditorium could also be used as a community space. It could host community meetings, debates, school art programs like plays or music recitals, guest speakers or authors and live music. It could be a great and unique attraction for our neighborhood that could help fill our empty retail spaces and boost the local economy.

    For theaters that have successfully embraced this format check out the Bagdad in Portland, OR (very similiar history to the Alexandria), the Laurelhurst in Portland, OR, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX (who have recently purchased the New Mission theater and are converting it into a similiar format) and the Kabuki right here in the Fillmore.

  5. Thanks Ryan. I’ve been in the kitchen vent store and my impression while there was they’re not interested in customers, especially those who don’t speak their dialect. I did manage a brochure on one range hood after some difficulty, while it did not meet my needs I found I could order direct from the manufacturer.

    The vibe I got was that it could be a front for something else, not unlike decades ago when I was briefly employed by a foreign-owned gem business downtown that was primarily serving as a money laundering operation for an individual who was quietly using Soviet funding to buy up small California banks. The principals had moved to California in order to avoid capture in another country for securities fraud, something I did not know when I accepted the position. When I noted there were a lot of office visitors who were meeting with the spouse (who claimed no interest in the ongoing business) of the business owner, there suddenly appeared an entire construction crew flown in from a third Asian country, who spoke no English or Chinese dialects, to build out a second retail location closer to Union Square. In less than a month after I and another employee were sent to the new location, the FBI closed in on them and extradited them to whence they came.

  6. Only in San Francisco…all over town residents are fighting against buildings being built and we can’t something built after 10 years. Not sure who’s to blame here but it sure does seem like a missed opportunity.

  7. Not a thing has changed in 10 years and it will probably stay that way for another 10. Whoever owns the Alexandria clearly does not care to utilize the property to it’s full potential either because of lack of funds or just no ambition. Either way it’s an ongoing embarrassment for our neighborhood to see. There are lots of things the theater could transform into but the owners simply don’t want to risk their money building whatever it is they proposed a year ago. SELL THE ALEXANDRIA!!!

  8. Waiting for BRT approval? I read that high density housing up to 7 stories will be allowed after the BRT goes through on the Geary corridor. I haven’t met a Neighbor or local business who wants so that leaves the developers.

  9. @Keith C, some details are available:

    It’s hilarious how so many San Franciscans love to complain about blight, and then complain about the proposed construction (um, @Ryan).

    I’d say the most likely progression is:
    1) (more) deferred maintenance and poor security,
    2) fire, blamed on homeless,
    3) from-scratch construction,
    4) profit.

  10. Salsaman, you have barely scratched the surface; there’s a web of LLCs loosely attached to the principals as well as some defunct California Corporations, one suspended/forfeited by Franchise Tax Board. They are primarily real estate or construction related. There are also more California corporations outside SF city limits that can be linked to these names (with and without intermediate initials). I got as far as I could on some sites until I hit the sign up and/or paywalls. Perhaps they are too occupied by their other businesses to bother with the lone project north of GG Park.

  11. I heard a while ago that Colliers was privately listing the property for $15,000,000 as is. The permits for the approved housing was done I guess to sweeten the offer since the theater is now in shambles. My guess is that the current owners have no intention to improve or develop the property and are simply trying to dump it off to someone with deep pockets. The theater building logistically could only be used as a theater since the building is a landmark and has the protected murals on the inside which makes it next to impossible to develop. In my opinion I think the owners will sit on it a very, very long time because $15 Million is just too steep for the condition of the building even with the parking lot.

  12. At a recent coffee hour, Supervisor Mar said the owner is selling the theater and some kind of deal is in the works. It sounded as though there’s some movement on this…at last. Perhaps Supervisor Mar’s office can give us more information.

  13. I have a legimitate question, why even try to preserve the Alexandria theatre? We don’t need a second run movie theatre do we? What more and more residents need is housing. Why not tear down the Alexandria can convert it plus the parking space into apartments and/or condos? That would serve the greater need. And the lower level can house commercial use like restaurants. But keeping the theatre in an age where people stream movie and tv shoes is frankly a bad business proposition.

  14. At this point it’s time to tear it down and build something new that the neighborhood could actually benefit from. There has been plenty of opportunity to save it for historical reasons, but I think that time has passed. We don’t need another theater in the Richmond with 4-Star and Balboa struggling nearby.

    We have much more pressing needs than keeping an old underused theater. I hope someone buys it ASAP. We could use clothing stores, more non-asian restaurants, etc.

  15. At least in part, this is a consequence of the City’s short term thinking in passing regulations that limit the usage of single screen theaters. Witness the 4-Star fiasco of a few years ago. The 4-star was saved as a movie theater through the use of some heavy handed tactics when it probably should not have been. Without the 4-Star, the Alexandria would have more viability as a movie house again. Only a fool would purchase the Alexandria, when you can’t tear it down and cannot convert it to anything else practically.

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