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Hotel, restaurant concepts for Palace of Fine Arts moving forward

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Some San Francisco residents want the Palace of Fine Arts to remain an educational and cultural spot rather than a commercial one with hotels and restaurants. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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Despite pleas from dozens of residents to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts exclusively for cultural and arts purposes, the Recreation and Park Commission on Thursday unanimously supported three concepts for the historic site that include adding hotels and restaurants.

The organizations that provided the three winning concepts, which would also offer historic displays, galleries or event facilities at the nearly 150,000-square-foot Palace that previously housed the Exploratorium, must submit proposals for the site by May.

The three concepts had been tentatively narrowed down from seven earlier this month by the commission’s operations committee, and a fourth group that had submitted an eliminated concept asked commissioners Thursday to reconsider their pitch for a Center for Global Arts and Cultures.

After more than an hour of public comment at Thursday’s meeting, commissioners noted that those invited to submit proposals for the site in May have been encouraged to collaborate with other agencies, including those whose concepts did not make the cut.

Commission President Mark Buell also emphasized that throughout its century-long tenure, the Palace has always been used for commercial purposes.

“The Exploratorium paid us over half a million dollars a year in rent,” Buell said. “Prior to that, there were tennis courts, there [was] military storage… It’s always been a commercial piece of property.”

The next tenant will occupy the site for 55 years, and will ultimately be responsible for some $20 million in improvements to the site, including seismic upgrades.

Meanwhile, parts of each of the three proposals – namely to add hotel or restaurant space within the Palace – had drawn the ire of some 20,000 people who signed an online petition in recent weeks urging city officials to maintain the Palace as a space for the arts.

San Francisco resident Kirsten Selberg, who created the online petition Nov. 7 opposing hotels or restaurants at the Palace, said after Thursday’s meeting that she was disappointed those concepts were moving forward.

“They seem pretty inflexible as far as reevaluating the idea of hotels there,” Selberg said.

The Recreation and Parks Department is in charge with finding a new long-term leaseholder for the century-old palace that previously housed the Exploratorium for four decades before it departed in 2013 for space along The Embarcadero. A new tenant is expected to be chosen by late next summer, and the Board of Supervisors must approve the lease.

Preserving the Palace for the arts is not a new sentiment. Constructed for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the rotunda and building were originally slated for demolition in 1916 after the world’s fair, but a group of citizens fought to save the palace, turning it into The City’s first art museum.

San Francisco residents again favored restoring the palace in 1959, when voters approved a $1.8 million bond that helped recast the palace in permanent materials. The Palace also underwent a seismic retrofit in 1993, and a $21 million renovation of its grounds and rotunda in 2010.

The Palace is currently occupied by Innovation Hangar, a nonprofit that offers exhibits, workshops, community events, educational programming and open workspaces in the Palace. It holds a short-term lease through March 2016, which could be extended.

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