Fine Arts Theater Space Could Become Offices

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

Chicago-based Equity Residential (whose chair, Sam Zell, now also owns the Los Angeles Times) will ask the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board Thursday (today) for a modification to the use permit for the Fine Arts Building project to allow retail or offices in a space previously approved for a 4,749-square-foot movie theater. 

The Fine Arts Cinema was demolished almost six years ago in order for the project to be built, and one of the conditions of approval was to require a ground-floor theater space, which would have a cinema in the future. 

The previous owner of the property, Berkeley developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests, informed the city’s project planner Greg Powell in an e-mail on March 14 about his unsuccessful attempts to find a movie theater operator who would rent the space. 

Kennedy attributed the problem to the lack of demand for single-screen theaters, providing several media reports about the challenges of operating a single-screen theater. 

In his e-mail, Kennedy said he had built the shell for a 150-plus seat, single-screen movie theater with plumbing and electrical systems and a 25-ton air conditioning system, as requested by Keith Arnold, who sold the theater to Kennedy. 

The original use permit required the owner to have a minimum of 275 seats in the theater. 

“Mr. Arnold was unable to raise sufficient funds to do any improvements to space and never even submitted plans to the city for a new theater,” Kennedy’s e-mail said. “For two years we advertised to find a new theater operator and received no interest. As you can see from the enclosed Exhibit 2, single-screen theaters have been economically challenged for many years, with almost all such institutions in San Francisco—40, in fact—closing in the last years.” 

Among Kennedy’s exhibits was a Dec. 6, 1998, New York Times article by Jack Cavanaugh, titled “Single Screen Theaters Find Their Days (and Nights) Numbered,” which talked about the demise of single-screen community theaters in the face of competition from multiplexes. 

Also included in the letter was a more recent column in the San Francisco Examiner by Ken Garcia, titled “Metro Theater Goes Dark in Latest Blow to Cinema Palaces” (October 2006), in which the writer informs readers that San Francisco had lost 40 single-screen film houses in the last 25 years. 

According to the column, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington placed San Francisco “on the top of the country’s most endangered list for disappearing single-screen theaters.” 

In an effort to preserve San Francisco’s “most stately movie houses,” the column says, the city’s supervisors passed an ordinance in 2005 that required “the conversion of a theater to a non-theater use to go through a conditional use permit.” 

Kennedy added that he was also unsuccessful in marketing the space to retail—even after using three brokers, Tallen & Associates, John Gordon, and Norheim & Yost—since it lacked street frontage. 

“The narrow frontage of approximately 20 feet and the presence of the large marquee over it made the space unattractive to any retail user,” Kennedy said. “There seemed to be very few users interested in space with such a configuration, and in the 3-plus years we owned the building, we never got a serious expression of interest in the space.” 

Thus, Equity Residential will ask the zoning board to approve the space for offices, which according to them, “don’t necessarily require significant street frontage.” 

The original use permit approved a mixed-use building at 2451-2471 Shattuck Ave. with 8,700 square feet of commercial space, including the theater space. 

The site has been developed into a five-story building, with 100 housing units, known as the Fine Arts Building. It is home to Herbivore—The Earthly Grill, which opened at the location in 2006. 

The owners have proposed only one tenant for the theater space, according to the staff report.