Proposal for Presidio movie theater has historians up in arms

A plan to reopen and expand a shuttered movie theater in the Presidio has angered local historians who believe an inappropriate “urbanizing” is taking place at the former Army base.

The proposal would more than double the size of the current structure, a 13,000-square-foot, one-screen theater that was built in 1939 and has been out of service since at least 1989, said Dana Polk, a spokeswoman for the Presidio Trust, the federally appointed organization that oversees operations at the decommissioned Army base.

The plan was recently submitted by the San Francisco Film Society, the nonprofit organization that stages the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The shuttered theater is across thestreet from the future site of a 100,000-square-foot contemporary art museum at the Presidio’s Main Post that will be financed by Gap founder Don Fisher to showcase his private collection.

The Presidio Trust has also been in negotiations with a developer about building an 80,000-square-foot hotel at the Main Post, Polk said.

The theater renovation project is years away from fruition, said Polk, who added that because the theater is a historic structure, any new development must fit within the strict architectural guidelines that govern Presidio buildings.

“This is just a request for proposal, but we certainly are entertaining it,” Polk said. “This would enliven the Main Post without straying from its identity.”

Gary Widman, president of the Presidio Historical Association, a nonprofit group that monitors developments at the Presidio, said renderings he’s seen of the project contribute to his concerns that the Presidio Trust is “commercializing the historic park grounds.”

More new developments should be devoted to detailing the history of the Main Post, which housed Spanish, Mexican and American army forces from 1776 to 1994, Widman said.

Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, said the theater would be used to showcase independent international films that usually receive limited releases. Leggat added that any concerns about the development were unfounded because of the speculative nature of the project.

Robert Redford and his movie company Sundance Institute briefly looked into reusing the former theater in 2000, but opted against the plan because of space limitations, Polk said.

wreisman@examiner.com

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