New Harding Theater Plan Could End Decade-Long Struggle

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A once thriving historic theater is currently home to dusty, cracking floors, graffiti covered walls, and tattered, worn-out seats, but its impending resurrection may be the solution the community has been seeking for over a decade.

The Harding Theater was recently leased out to the Marks brothers, two businessmen from Chicago that have big plans for the old theater on Divisadero Street.

The Harding is one of a few well-known theaters around San Francisco that was built by Samuel H. Levin and the Reid brothers’ architectural firm. Others include the Alexandria, the Balboa, the Metro and the Empire, according to the organization known as The Friends of 1800, one of the groups leading the fight for the theater’s preservation.

The theater was first built in 1926 and was originally used to screen films, but later hosted live music and theater performances.

After the mid-1970s, the theater was converted into a church. Then, in 2003, it was purchased by developers who had plans to destroy it and build condos in its place, according to The Friends of 1800.

Since then, the state of the Harding has been up in the air, with multiple groups fighting to shape the theater to their own desires.

“It’s been vacant for a long time,” said Alex Goodwin, a resident of the Western Addition who also happens to work only a block away from the theater at Bi-Rite Market on Divisadero Street. “The community has tried to suggest uses for it, but they’ve been shot down.”

After it was purchased over 10 years ago, many of those eager to preserve the Harding simply wanted to keep it from being destroyed all together.

“Originally there was opposition because there was a proposal to demolish the building and put in housing,” said John Dallas, a real estate agent and a member of the board of directors for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association.

The preservation efforts eventually proved successful, and plans for the demolition never came to fruition.

“Harding’s status as a historic community resource under state law has successfully protected it from demolition,” said Amy Farah Weiss in a post to the Neighbors Developing Divisadero website, an organization she founded that is dedicated to promoting community participation in neighborhood development.

While preventing the destruction of the Harding was an accomplishment for several neighborhood coalitions, there were still no tangible plans regarding what the theater would eventually become.

The Neighbors Developing Divisadero group wanted to transform the theater into what they called the “Harding Hive,” a multipurpose space designed to host art and culture exhibitions by the community.

Like many other optimistic plans for the building, this one fell through also, despite being well organized.

This year, a new plan for the space was brought forth and has gained a great deal of momentum just in the last few months.

Danny and Doug Marks, two entrepreneurs from Chicago, decided the theater would be the perfect location to expand their business to the West Coast.

“I first heard about the theater from some friends in San Francisco,” said Danny Marks. “I saw this awesome building that was vacant and it was in a great location and a great neighborhood.”

“Any time you can find a unique space to do what we are doing is a plus,” said Marks.

The two quickly moved forward with their concept to transform the theater into the next location for their chain of arcade-style bars called Emporium, but knew they had to approach the community about it first.

“We went to two different neighborhood group meetings,” said Marks.

At the first meeting, the brothers met John Dallas where they discussed the potential the project had for the community.

“When the Marks brothers first came into the meeting we met and said ‘we finally have something we can all agree on,'” said Dallas.

Though it’s difficult to please everyone in situations regarding a beloved and historic piece of the neighborhood, the Marks brothers believe they garnered generally positive feedback from the community.

“We got a lot of support from the community,” said Marks. “There was a handful of people that would have preferred it be something else, but it seemed like most people were just happy that it wouldn’t be torn down.”

Because the theater is no longer going to be demolished, a large condo complex cannot be built in its place.

However, those seeking to use that area to build more housing will not be completely out of luck.

A secondary effect of these plans is the creation of a new, smaller five-story condo building in the lot directly adjacent to the theater.

“There are a lot of different things that are needed in San Francisco,” said Michael Klestoff, the current owner of the Harding Theater. “This project is a win-win. It activates and preserves the existing building and at the same time new housing will be built.”

Time has taken a toll on the theater and significant renovations will be required to bring the building up to standards, let alone create an attractive establishment.

“They will be restoring significant architectural features of the building,” said Mark Topetcher, an architect that has been involved with the theater since 2003.

How the Marks brothers decide to renovate the theater, however, may be crucial to preserving its historical significance.

“With historic theaters, unlike many other historic buildings, it is just as important to preserve the interior,” said Mike Buhler, the executive director of SF Heritage, an organization committed to preserving historic architectural buildings in San Francisco. “However, that isn’t to say that upgrades cannot be made.”

“What we look at as preservationists is whether or not the upgrades are reversible,” said Buhler. “It is important to preserve as much as possible on the interior as well as the exterior.”

Buhler also noted that there have been numerous examples of “adaptive reuse projects” in San Francisco where old theaters and buildings have been repurposed for an alternate use but are still preserved as landmarks in the community.

“It sounds like what is happening with the Harding Theater is an example of this creative reuse,” said Buhler.

And now, after over a decade of silence and emptiness, the new project is approaching at an increasingly rapid pace.

“It has currently gone through city approvals,” said Marks. “Construction will start in early 2016 and will go for about 10 months.”

Though a final verdict from the community on whether or not they will support

the changes to the Harding will not emerge until its reopening, for now, this ambitious new project is proving to be a fair compromise for most of the opposing parties with an interest in the theater.

“San Francisco is a great city and it has a lot of history,” said Marks. “We just want to bring a fun new place to that community.”

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