Fight for theater begins second act

Drama has returned to the Western Addition’s Harding Theater — once the home of vaudeville acts and silent films — but not in the way its builders originally imagined.

Opponents recently filed an appeal opposing developers’ plans to demolish a portion of the theater and build eight condominiums at 616 Divisadero St., near Alamo Square.

Developers Michael Klestoff and Patrick Stack filed their proposal after dropping their initial plans in 2004 to remove the entire venue and construct 16 condos and retail space, Klestoff said.

The appeal, filed by neighbors with the Friends of 1800, challenges an environmental review of the modified plans, particularly on the grounds that the builders would still destroy the most historic part of the Harding — its stage and orchestra pit, resident David Tornheim said.

“The City’s Planning Department found that the building was a historic resource, eligible for the California Register,” said attorney Arthur Levy, who represents the neighbors’ appeal. “Under California environmental law, it’s not necessary that it actually be registered.”

The Harding Theater, built by the Reid brothers — who also designed the Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel — opened in 1926. In the 1980s and ’90s, it housed a church, but then shut its doors when Klestoff and Stack purchased the property in 2001, Tornheim said.

“It’s very old, and quite well-preserved,” Levy said. “Its virtue is that it’s pretty much intact.”

In 2005, the developers’ original plans were approved by the Planning Commission. Neighbors — including Tornheim — appealed the decision to the Board of Supervisors, which rejected the plan on the grounds that The City had placed a moratorium on demolition of single-screen movie houses.

“We agreed to compromise, and we’ve been working at it ever since,” Klestoff said. “We think this is going to be a very positive thing for the neighborhood.”

A hearing on the appeal, originally planned for July, was postponed until next month. In the meantime, the developers are hoping to drum up support for their plans.

“We are going to all neighborhood groups and making sure everyone’s aware of what’s going on,” Klestoff said. “Unfortunately, I think whatever we present, there would be someone opposing it.”

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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