‘For rent’ — the future of the Palace of Fine Arts unfolds

Plan of the Palace of Fine Arts from 2003 historic landscape survey

As the Exploratorium begins its move to Pier 15, the “For rent” sign is going up on the Palace of Fine Arts. Neighbors and friends of the Palace had a chance in December to weigh in on proposed uses for the soon-to-be empty exhibition hall.

The S.F. Recreation and Park Department (RPD) held duplicate community outreach meetings on Dec. 5 and Dec. 12. A total of 110 people attended the presentations from Cassandra Costello, property manager for RPD; the Palace of Fine Arts Advisory Committee; Sedway Consulting, a real estate and urban economics consulting firm; the Maybeck Foundation; and EHDD Architecture.

Hans Baldauf gave an overview of the advisory committee’s process. The 24 members (which include all of the meeting’s presenters) were assembled to provide RPD with recommendations for future uses from community, local business, and property management perspectives. With information on current conditions and historical uses, a list of recommendations was developed:

  • Offers public access to at least a portion of the building
  • Includes strategies to mitigate parking and traffic impacts
  • Retains theater or comparable performing arts space
  • Preserves the architectural significance
  • Utilizes cutting edge green building practices
  • Is compatible and synergistic with adjacent outdoor spaces
  • Reflects and is cohesive with other uses in the area
  • Is family friendly
  • Celebrates the history of the building and the work of Bernard Maybeck
  • Embodies world-class ethics (in keeping with the caliber of Maybeck’s work)
  • Offers options for food and dining

Lynn Sedway of Sedway Consulting spoke about the type of tenants being considered: museum uses, recreational uses, campus or educational uses, an exhibition space, a venue for trade and craft shows, and art studios, among others. “We’re being very careful and we’re going to bring everything back to [the community],” she said.

Kelly Ishida Sloan of EHDD Architecture, consultants to the Maybeck Foundation and RPD, presented sketches for both multiple-tenant and single-tenant uses. Each plan included returning the main entrance to its historic point at the middle of the building.

Sloan provided cost estimates of more than $20 million to complete all of the recommended structural and infrastructure improvements. It would be up to tenants to pay for interior improvements.

Attendees raised concerns over the location of a midpoint entry and its impact on the park. Parking is always a point of contention in the area, especially because the main parking lot has been reduced in size and is controlled by the Presidio Trust. Many expressed a desire to see the building return to its arts-based beginning. Others want to make the city-owned building more public-use oriented.

Vocal at both meetings were advocates of the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. When questioned about the recommendation that keeping the theater is encouraged but not required, Costello noted that it will take a considerable amount of capital to renovate the building: “To the extent that the theater can participate in that, fantastic.”

Recommendations are being considered in order to create a bid document for a long-term tenant. RPD has already started negotiations with an interim tenant that they hope to bring to the Recreation and Park Commission in January. Costello would say only that it was either an international art or educational use. Many neighbors raised concerns that it might be the Academy of Art, but Costello would not comment.

After one neighbor expressed frustration over RPD’s “close to the vest” approach with this project, Catherine Stefani, legislative aide to Supervisor Mark Farrell, spoke up. “We’re concerned about getting a tenant in here that is going to be compatible with the neighborhood,” she said. “I know that some people may be frustrated with this process. But you can e-mail our office with your thoughts or concerns … and we will convey that to Rec and Park.”

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