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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2014

Mid-Market at a Midpoint

Monday, September 15, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Jean Schiffman

The redevelopment that's underway in the area of downtown San Francisco between 5th Street and Van Ness Avenue, known as Mid-Market, or Central Market, is attracting enough attention these days to warrant a long feature in a recent New Yorker magazine—in which the arts were not mentioned. Nor did San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius mention the arts in a July 3 article on the same topic. It is the recently arrived high-tech companies, and the effect that gentrification is having on low-income residents and small businesses in the Tenderloin, that is at the center of such discussions. 



Group I's rendering of the planned 950-975 Market building. Photo: Courtesy of Group I


But the performing arts community—those companies that already live in Mid-Market, and plenty of others as well—has been intensely interested, and involved, in the city's plans for the blighted area for a long time. 

Two years ago, I wrote about the latest developments there in an article in Theatre Bay Area (July/August 2012), discussing the topic with representatives of two of the many theatres whose futures are tied very closely to that neighborhood: Rob Ready of PianoFight and American Conservatory Theater executive director Ellen Richard. The article ended with a comment from Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts: "I think there are extraordinary opportunities in Central Market," she said—and predicted that by the time that article appeared, things would have changed several times.

Which of course they did, and have since then. In the case of PianoFight, which took over the old Original Joe's at 144 Taylor Street—a 1910 historical landmark building—Ready and his business partners have made great progress. Although in May 2012 Ready said the budget for renovations was $985,000, it has since risen to $1.2 million. Through several sources, including a loan and a huge Kickstarter campaign, the company had as of mid-July 2014 come close to the final goal. The eagerly awaited liquor license is "essentially good to go," says Ready, and, as planned, the hub's basement will hold multiple rehearsal and office spaces and two dressing rooms; the ground floor's plans now include a 90-seat and a 45-seat theatre. The renovations may be complete and the venue open by the time you read this. PianoFight has partnered with EndGames Improv, a Bay Area improv school ("We've kind of merged the two companies together," says Ready) with classes and performances to be held on site. Also PianoFight is working with FaultLine Theater and a few other theatres to be announced later on space-sharing possibilities. Ready is enthusiastic about the entire Mid-Market project: "Things here are pretty amazing, especially when you consider where things were at three years ago."

Meanwhile, ACT's Mid-Market presence is evident. The renovated Strand, at 1127 Market Street, is set to open in April, as predicted. Ellen Richard reports that it will include a 300-seat theatre and a second-floor, flexible black-box public space for performance, classrooms, rehearsals and parties and will look down toward City Hall, an amazing view, says Richard.




American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and ACT executive director

Ellen Richard at the opening celebration of the Costume Shop on December 7, 2011. Photo: Orange Photography



ACT's Costume Shop, a few doors east on the same block, has been going strong. In 2012, Richard said they hoped to increase the seating from 50 to 100, and they're still considering that—but not until after the Strand opens. Eighty percent of the nonprofit theatres using the Costume Shop space are there through a space-sharing program: ACT supplies the space at no cost, plus equipment, tech support, security and some marketing depending on the various levels of need. ACT's Costume Shop "partnering organizations" for the 2013–14 season included AlterTheater, Campo Santo, Do It Live! Productions, FoolsFury, Goat Hall Productions, Playwrights Foundation and many other theatres. "My goal is to see the Strand and the Costume Shop as a little campus," confides Richard.

But the other side of the coin is that ACT has lost a 100-seat theatre (used for the Young Conservatory and the MFA program), a big rehearsal studio and a lot of office space at its longtime base at 30 Grant. Due to a 50 percent rent increase there, the company was forced to downgrade from 37,000 to 25,000 square feet. It was a big loss, says Richard. Although the offices still remain at 30 Grant for the time being, the eventual intention is to move into 950-974 Market Street when that complex is completed—that is, to buy "condo space" in the building. In that regard, ACT will remain separate from the other theatres that hope to acquire space there.

Regarding that long-in-the-planning-stage 950-974 project, here is how Group I, the San Francisco-based real estate development company charged with the development of the site, describes the project on its website: "a mixed-use development located on the irregularly shaped triangular property at the corner of Market Street and Turk Street, next to the historic Warfield building...presently the site [comprises] vacant or unused buildings..." With construction expected to start in 2016 and be completed in 2018, it will consist of a hotel, mixed-income residences, retail businesses and nonprofit spaces (that is, theatre and performance spaces, administrative offices, rehearsal space, studios and classrooms), according to PJ Johnston, who is board chair of the 950 Center for Arts and Education, a segment of the project that is relevant to the city's theatre community at large.

Of the nonprofit allotment, Johnston says via email, ACT will occupy about half of that area (the condo space mentioned above). The 950 Center for Arts and Education is envisioned for the rest of the nonprofit space. "In its current configuration," he explains, "the 950 Center will feature two theatres, along with a mix of other arts and educational spaces. The exact mix of long-term leaseholders, seasonal performers, visiting companies and regular community partners is still being worked out." Johnston says that the 950 Center remains in constant contact with a variety of local arts organizations regarding use of the space: the Magic, Lorraine Hansberry, Crowded Fire, Lines Ballet, YouthSpeaks, Cutting Ball and others. 

The two theatres planned for the 950 Center are expected to be a 99-seater and a 249–299 seater (the number of other spaces, for classrooms and rehearsals, is yet to be determined).  

A group of organizations are working with the city to establish a Special Use District for the arts in the area of the Tenderloin/Mid-Market in which 950-974 will sit; the SUD, in a variety of ways, will "incentivize the development of the arts component," as local reporter Rob Avila wrote in an article about the Mid-Market corridor in the July/August issue of American Theatre. The San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts are assisting in that effort toward an SUD.

According to Group I's website, the 950 Center will be 75,000 square feet. Funding for predevelopment has come from many foundations, agencies and organizations, including the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development.




Group I's rendering of the planned 950-975 Market building. Photo: Courtesy of Group I


But theatre activist Bill Schwartz, who founded and produced the San Francisco Theater Festival and was also executive producer of the Eureka Theatre (on Jackson Street), points out that the two theatres currently allotted to the 950 Center fall woefully short of proven need. He refers to a feasibility study conducted a few years ago under the auspices of Theatre Bay Area and an ad hoc committee, the Coalition for a Mid-Market Theatre District (founded by Schwartz to petition the Arts Commission to "pursue a cluster of theatres in mid-Market"). The study found that, as Schwartz explains, "even four theatres would not satisfy the need for [additional performance] space." Says Schwartz, "It's a big disappointment to me to see what I'll call a half-measure dangled for the theatre community: one theatre and a black box [at the 950 Center].

He continues, "950 will include office and rehearsal space, but that's not what's important to put in this location." Schwartz cites the visibility of the 950-974 site—it's right next to the Powell Street BART station—and its proximity to all the new tech companies that employ potential audiences. "Market Street has always been waiting to be developed," he says, "and now that it's happening, it should include theatre. If it doesn't happen now, I don't know when it ever will." He encourages TBA's member theatres to champion the cause.

However, Theatre Bay Area executive director Brad Erickson takes a glass-half-full perspective. He's excited about the proposed design for 950-974, by the architectural firm Bjarke Ingels Group. "Whoever the anchor tenants are will benefit from that design," he says. Theatre Bay Area is discussing a possible TIX outlet in the lobby. Four theatres there would have been nice, Erickson concedes—but two is a whole lot better than the current number on the site, which of course is zero. More importantly, he exults, "We're actually beginning to get a theatre district, not all in one building—nor should it be." He points to CounterPulse's new theatre space at 80 Turk Street and to the Costume Shop, above which TBA now has its offices. "We all of a sudden have a number of new theatre and performance spaces within a few blocks."

CounterPulse, a dance organization, and the Luggage Store Gallery (an arts pioneer in Mid-Market) are beneficiaries of the new Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST). The Northern California Community Loan Fund and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation joined forces to create CAST, which actually purchased two buildings in Mid-Market for those two nonprofits, both of which will eventually repay the loan and own their buildings outright. "CAST has put real dollars into the neighborhood, enabled real organizations to be there," notes Kary Schulman. That's the really big mid-Market change in the past two years that affects the arts community, she says—and there are plans for CAST to continue in the same vein.

Comparatively, Schulman says, in response to Schwartz's concerns about the dearth of theatre spaces planned for 950, the city hasn't quite figured out what the new developer incentive will be for the project; city bureaucracies move slowly. "There are a lot of approvals and funding mechanisms that 950 will need from the city, and those are not in place yet," she explains. "We're in a holding pattern." Grants for the Arts supports arts activities at 950 but is not committed to any particular configuration. "My belief is that the community hasn't come up with a configuration that will work for the community and for the space and for the developer," she says. "But I'm optimistic."

"The 950 Center for Arts and Education," says Johnston, "is essentially a start-up nonprofit, with a great vision, broad support and a compelling constituency—but no track record, much less an endowment. We're working against the clock to establish a viable organization and raise money in a timely fashion, so that we might seize this incredible opportunity before it slips away." He adds, "As land prices, rents and other costs have risen, arts organizations have not been able to keep pace."

If the city once perceived arts organizations as the key to revitalizing Mid-Market, that focus changed a few years ago when Twitter and other high-tech companies, offered tax breaks by the city, began moving in. "If you're at all fragile, it's going to be impossible to survive in the Mid-Market area with these kinds of rents," predicts Ellen Richard. "The city is coming up with plans to stabilize rents for those faced with big increases, and hopefully that will mitigate some of it.

"Hopefully it will be more than just ACT on the street in terms of arts!" she adds, only partly joking. "An arts corridor here is good for all the arts."  


Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.