Blight Friction

Making a decrepit ex-theater into new housing spawns unrealistic opposition in grimy Lower Haight

Just after dark, crowds begin to gather in the many bars and eateries that line Haight Street between Fillmore and Steiner. Molotov's, the Horse Shoe Coffee House, Noc Noc, Toronado, Mad Dog in the Fog, Hanabi Japanese Restaurant, Pasta Pomodoro, and Ali Baba's Cave Cafe and Restaurant are lit up, doors wide open. But the light coming from the restaurants and bars illuminates stained sidewalks that badly need washing, littered with paper cups, empty liquor bottles, cigarette butts, and even a threadbare suitcase.

In front of a boarded-up building squeezed between the Horse Shoe and the gated Peacock Lounge, a homeless woman has parked her cart of belongings and stands watching passers-by. She's settled in front of 560 Haight, a building that's now the talk of the neighborhood: Developers have recently purchased it to convert into condominiums.

An anti-condo neighborhood group has gathered petition letters, lobbied the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Willie Brown, protested to the Planning Department, and appealed the building permits granted to the developers. Group members say they want to see the building converted into a community center/performing arts theater, and their efforts have successfully stalled the development, even though no funding has been obtained for a community center.

An equally spirited group, many of them property owners, are siding with the developers. They've mounted a counter-petition drive, in a quest to rid the neighborhood of what many have called an eyesore, a magnet for crime, and an attractor of vagrants and flea markets.

In the Roaring '20s, when motion pictures were still in their infancy and grand, ornate movie palaces were popping up across the country, 560 Haight opened as the Riviera Theater.

A San Francisco Examiner clipping, dated March 5, 1927, touts the magnificence of the theater: "It is a modern steel and concrete structure with balcony, and equipment including the newest improvements for the projection of motion pictures. ... Its interior is handsome in its architectural and decorative details."

Toward the end of the Great Depression, the theater changed hands and became known as the Midtown. Shortly after the Midtown went out of business in the 1950s, an African-American congregation purchased the theater, which at the time was at the fringe of the city's black neighborhood.

With some remodeling, the congregation transformed the theater into a church. The marquee and the towering neon sign with the theater's name were taken down and replaced with a modest neon cross. The church also installed six big windows, modified the stage to provide seats for a choir, and built a large kitchen. But as the African-American population moved out of the neighborhood over the next few decades, the congregation shrank. The church deteriorated.

"They [the homeless] know how to break into it. I can't keep anything there. They live there -- people on drugs and people that don't work," says the Rev. Jesse Grant, who has been with the church since its founding.

Over the years, Grant, now 84, tried to maintain the church on his own. But as he got older, he could no longer keep up with the work on the sizable property. In 1996, the Planning Department cited the church for building code violations and for being a nuisance. A year later, the city threatened to sell it for failing to pay property taxes.

In the past six years, three buyers have approached the church, but the first two deals fell apart. Finally this year four developers purchased the property for nearly $1 million.

Their plan is to gut the building, partition the space into 19 condos and 31 underground parking spaces, and restore the original facade. The developers refused to disclose how much the units will sell for, though other new condos in the neighborhood are priced between $230,000 and $320,000.

Neighborhood residents opposing the condo project want to restore the theater and use the space for a community center, which would host a variety of activities, ranging from job fairs, after-school programs, and merchant meetings to film festivals, a neighborhood museum celebrating diversity, and an art gallery showcasing young talents.

Jim Houillian, an articulate, amicable, and slightly reserved restorer of Victorian homes, believes the neighborhood needs something "inclusive."

"Right now, white people fear black people and vice versa. More affluent people fear less affluent people and vice versa. We have so many different kinds of people. I want to create something positive out of diversity, to break through the fear," Houillian, who is white, says.

Jeri Thompson, owner of Rooky Ricardo's Records, says the low-income African-American population in the Lower Haight needs a community center. "We need a place where children can go to learn to read, to learn to write, to count properly," Thompson says.

Many supporters of the condo conversion project don't deny the potential good a community center could do. They just see little likelihood that such a center will actually be built, and they fear stopping the condos will leave the neighborhood with nothing but the eyesore the former church has become.

Rochelle McCune (no relation to Joe McCune), who owns a green, gated Victorian across the street from the empty church and who works for Project Open Hand, a nonprofit group that provides nutrition services for HIV-positive people, says the community center proposal is "too little, too late."

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