The ground floor of the Fine Arts Building on Shattuck Avenue—built on the former site of Berkeley Fine Arts Cinema, which evolved from the historic Cinema Theatre, showcasing repertory films from all over the world—was approved to be converted to medical office space by the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board last week.
The board approved a use permit modification Thursday for the Fine Arts Building project to allow Chicago-based Equity Residential to build offices in a space previously approved for a 4,749-square-foot movie theater. The prospective tenant for the medical office was not named in the city report.
The Fine Arts Cinema was demolished almost six years ago in order for the apartment building project to be built. One of the conditions of approval required a space on the ground floor for the cinema.
In an e-mail to Greg Powell, the city’s project planner, Berkeley-based developer Patrick Kennedy, the building’s previous owner, said he had been unable to find a movie theater operator to rent the space, attributing the failure to the lack of demand for single-screen theaters. Kennedy also included several media reports about the demise of single-screen theaters in the country, including articles from the New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner, which spoke about the challenges faced by single-screen movie operators in the face of competition from multiplexes.
He added that 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 the 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... . 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.”
Zoning commissioner Jesse Arreguin, who voted against the project, asked city staff how the zoning board had arrived at a minimum of 275 seats when approving the project’s original use permit.
“Why was it the standard we set?” he asked.
“It appears the owner of the building did not comply with it since he only built 155 seats.”
Powell replied he was not aware of the history behind the zoning board’s decision. “Going from memory, the old theater had around 150 seats,” he said.
Patti Dacey, who sits on the city’s Planning Commission, criticized the proposed use permit modification.
“This situation is very instructive,” she said during public comment. “The promise of developers to provide citizen amenities, cultural use and improve the quality of life for the community... . What is happening again and again is that these amenities are being stripped away. Now we are going to have office space instead of a well-loved theater. The citizens are not going to get anything from the Fine Arts Building.”
Cindy O’Hara, who spoke on behalf of Equity Residential—which is owned by Sam Zell, the new owner of the Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times—said a medical office would also be an amenity to the community.
“A vacant building is not good for the community, so we applied for medical offices,” she said. “If we could have a theater we would have a theater. The medical office will also provide services to people.”
Commissioner Bob Allen was the first to move approval of the project. “We are putting blinders on if we don’t recognize the theater industry is a failing business,” he said. “Who are we kidding that if we like something we will get it? The Fine Arts Building is one of the best-designed buildings we have got in the city in the last 25 years, if not the best.”
Arreguin pointed out that the Fine Arts Building was constructed by demolishing a “long-standing community resource.”
“I think we are closing the door to another independent theater,” he said.
Commissioner Sara Shumer echoed Arreguin’s thoughts. “I am also very disappointed that we are changing the arts to office space,” she said.