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Backers revive goal of downtown arts school

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If the dream finally becomes a reality, San Francisco’s acclaimed School of the Arts would be relocated to The City center, where students would be in close proximity to the working artists of the ballet, symphony and opera, among others.

It is a project that San Francisco artists and educators have talked about for decades. A 2003 voter-approved school facilities bond specifically set aside $15 million to move SOTA from its current location in Twin Peaks to an updated facility.

To that end, proponents of the move have had their eye on a seismically unsound building that formerly housed one of the dis-

trict’s high schools, located at 135 Van Ness Ave. alongside the Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House and the Herbst Theatre.

SOTA Principal Don Harris said that while his school was already successfully training young artists in such areas as dance, instrumental music, theater, voice, film and visual arts, relocating it would create “irreplaceable” opportunities.

“The dream is that Michael Tilson Thomas walks across the street on his lunchtime and does a little impromptu directing,” Harris said.

The cost of renovating 135 Van Ness and its adjacent buildings, however, has kept the dream out of reach. Board members — who’ve had to close schools in recent years due to declining enrollment and budget shortfalls — were taken aback by new cost estimates presented to the building committee in May, which ranged from $143 million to $171 million.

“The reason why the costs are so high is because the buildings require a complete seismic, earthquake retrofit,” said David Goldin, the district’s chief of facilities, adding that the buildings are in “extremely poor condition” with architectural features that would be expensive to restore. In addition, converting the older buildings into a “state-of-the-art” school with large dance rooms, band and orchestra facilities, practice rooms, art studios, photographic studios and a choral room would make this project costlier than a conventional high school.

In addition to the Proposition A money, another $10.3 million from FEMA and $39 million in state grant money is available for the project.

Members of the arts community are trying to create a financial feasibility study, in part to look at fundraising options, Harris said.

School board member Mark Sanchez said that while he supports the idea of relocating SOTA to the downtown arts district, the entire project seemed “pretty onerous.”

Sanchez said a capital campaign to raise funds from the private sector would be necessary — but so, too, would support from City Hall. The project would likely include renovating nearby Nourse Auditorium, which could then be used by both the schooldistrict and The City, he said.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's education adviser, Hydra Mendoza, said the city chief supports creating a downtown arts high school, but not at any cost.

beslinger@examiner.com

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