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May 08

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Renew The Avenue! Theater Facade To Be Restored & More!

Artist’s rendering of the restored marquee and neon colors.

Historic Facade To Be Restored

We had a little fun attempting to create some “breaking news” drama in our last Avenue Theater post by creating an air of mystery around this exciting project.  Something big is indeed happening at the long abandoned Theater but it’s not much of a secret for Portolans that have been attending community meetings over the past year.  So without further ado, the Portola Neighborhood Association has partnered with the city of San Francisco to take on an ambitious project that will result in the full restoration of the theater’s facade.  Before anyone gets too excited, we must note that at this time, there are no plans to renovate the interior of the theater.  We do have word though, that the interiors are mostly intact, complete with seats, stage and architectural details.

The scaffolding is up and the old gal is getting a facelift. The next time we see the spanish revival facade, it will be as good as new!

The Avenue Marquee, A Beacon For San Bruno Ave. & The Portola

So why only the facade you ask?  For starters, the city and the P.N.A. see this investment into the Avenue Theater as a catalyst for economic growth and vitality for the entire San Bruno Ave. corridor.  The large decaying facade has been looming over the street for decades now and in some ways, it has become a symbol for the street’s decline.   Around the time of the early 1970’s, crime began to rise on the street (as it did all over the city) and long time businesses began closing their doors, a trend that continued into the early 2000’s.  Recently though, San Bruno Ave. has been experiencing the beginnings of what the city and the P.N.A. hope is a renaissance. The corridor has become a vibrant multicultural market place of small locally owned businesses.  Breakfast At Tiffany’s has been  revived with brunch crowds waiting to get a seat, some Asian eateries such as Fancy Wheat Field Bakery and the Banh Mi House are bringing a more upmarket feel to their establishments and hip drink spots are beginning to arrive.

These improvements are just a start and the city and the P.N.A want to help support existing businesses while also encouraging more investment in the corridor. Activating the theater which physically and symbolically sits at the heart of the corridor is seen as a good way to keep the momentum going. Beginning with illuminating the prominent but long dark neon of the theater’s marquee to create a beacon for the street and the neighborhood. The hope is that the glow will help enliven the street atmosphere at night.  Attracting neighbors back to the corridor as well as luring in visitors passing by on 101 & 280 where the sign is highly visible, bringing in more business for existing establishments. Additionally, the project’s other goal, is that by activating the facade, it will help to attract investment opportunities to the long dormant Theater.  The city is loosing many of it’s arts spaces and perhaps the Avenue Theater can start a new chapter as a cultural destination for Southeast San Francisco.  As some may not know, the Theater is not just a movie house but rather a full performance theater with dressing rooms, a stage and flyspace for scenery in live productions, so the potential is there.

Does this all sound a little pie-in-the-sky?  Consider that it’s exactly the same approach Oakland took with the Fox Theater when it sat in disrepair for so many years.  Perhaps by reusing that same recipe for revitalization, there can be hope for the Avenue as well.

Color rendering of the new historically accurate paint scheme.

The Deal, Johnson’s BBQ Space Leased To The Neighborhood

We reached out to Luke Spray, the corridor manager for San Bruno Ave., to get more details on the project and how we got to this exciting milestone.  The project idea came from a group of concerned Portola residents who approached Jack Tse (former San Bruno Ave. corridor manger) to find a way to preserve the deteriorating landmark theater.  After formulating a plan based on the Fox Theater restoration, Jack approached then supervisor Campos and his aide Hillary Ronen (now Supervisor) with the idea.  Seeing the value in the concept, they immediately took it on and presented it to Mayor Ed Lee.   Several years of negotiations and planning with the city and the building’s owner began with the intention to reach an agreement on how the project might work.

Concurrently, while the contractual nuts and bolts were being worked out, planning for the pretty stuff was taking place.  Community members worked with historic renovation experts to get the new look right for the building’s age and architecture.  No clear color photos of the original Theater existed so “Dr. Color”, an historic architectural color expert, was brought onto the project.  He created a scheme for the building based on a palette of colors found on similar theaters of this vintage.  Dr. Color, who is also known for his work on the Bayview Opera House, presented his colors to the city for final approval.

All of these moving pieces of contract negotiation, city red tape and color selections finally came together in the 11 hour.  Luke said that he had little sleep the final week trying to get the project planning over the finish line.  Just 3 weeks ago when the city signed off on the colors and a contract was signed with the building’s owner, the project officially began work. Scaffolding prep started the very next day.

So what does the building owner give back for all this work to his building?  In exchange for the upgrades received to the Theater, the owner has agreed to lease the old Johnson’s Barbeque space to the P.N.A. at a highly discounted rate for 5 years.  The P.N.A. also received subletting rights to the space and is currently looking for a restaurant or other food service retailers to occupy the space.  During public comments, the P.N.A. heard from many residents that there is a need for a restaurant that will serve into the evening on San Bruno Ave.  Something that will help enliven the corridor during the day and into the evening while also bringing more families from the neighborhood out.  If you know someone who may be interested in this space, feel free to reach out to the P.N.A. with your suggestions.  CONTACT HERE

Say “goodbye” to this tired monochromatic look.

Here is the story directly from the horse’s mouth, the P.N.A.’s official announcement newsletter:

The Avenue Theater project is finally underway!
The Avenue Theater has been the heart of the Portola since it opened in 1927. Neighbors have fond memories of spending Sunday afternoons watching movies and sharing candy from the sweets shop next door. The Avenue also happens to sit in the middle of San Bruno Avenue, our neighborhood’s commercial corridor, and is the tallest and most recognizable building around.

It’s been more than 30 years since the last movie was shown at the Avenue Theater, there have been virtually no signs of life in the building since Johnson’s BBQ closed up shop in 2011.

In more recent years, the PNA has had many conversations with the building’s owner about potential uses for the space. Seeing that the theater is so large, finding a tenant has been a challenge. As the conversation evolved, we turned our discussion toward’s the building’s beautiful decaying neon sign. There was clearly a strong desire within the community to see the neon restored.

In 2015 former PNA Corridor Manager Jack Tse helped the PNA come to an agreement with the building’s owner: We’d help turn the neon back on, and in return he’d give us the keys to the Johnson’s BBQ space at a heavily discounted rate. From there, we set out to work with District Supervisor David Campos, his aide (and current Supervisor) Hillary Ronen, and the City’s Office of Economic & Workforce Development to find potential grant funding. In early 2016 we applied for a grant and won funding for the project.

We’ve spent the last year finding all of the right contractors, hammering out contracts and figuring out the countless details that go into a project like this.

This is a BIG project for the City and for the Portola. This is the first project of it’s kind in neighborhood, and one of the largest facade improvement project that the City has ever done. While this project is only improving the facade and not the interior of the theater, it’s important to note that the much beloved Fox Theater in Oakland went through a very similar process. Our hope is to follow in the Fox’s footsteps, activating the facade first and using that momentum to find someone who can utilize the theater for the benefit of the entire neighborhood.

 So now the time has come, it’s finally time to Renew the Avenue!  

We will continue to report on he project as it progresses here at the Planet but you can also keep in touch by signing up fo the PNA’s newsletter by clicking HERE and by following the “Renew The Avenue” facebook page here:  Renew The Avenue

Permanent link to this article: http://portolaplanet.com/2017/05/renew-avenue-theater-facade-restored/

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