Nonarts proposals for Palace of Fine Arts anger residents

As San Francisco moves closer to selecting a future long-term tenant for the Palace of Fine Arts, several proposals that include building a hotel or restaurants have drawn the ire of residents who want the site preserved for the arts.

Last week, the Operations Committee of the Recreation and Park Commission narrowed down the list of prospective tenants from seven to three based on scores that included proposed uses, public access and compatibility with the palace and neighborhood.

Ideas that cleared the first hurdle include hotels or restaurants that would also house historic displays, galleries or event facilities. The full commission is slated to weigh in on the possibilities on Nov. 19, and a winner could be selected as early as next summer.

But on Saturday, San Francisco resident Kirsten Selberg created an online petition urging the Recreation and Park Department and Mayor Ed Lee to preserve the site as a cultural and educational center. The petition had garnered more than 13,000 signatures as of Tuesday evening.

“These things are important to San Franciscans, especially with what we’re dealing with right now, such rapid change in The City that’s not necessarily for the best,” Selberg said. “San Franciscans are just begging to hang on to something for themselves and for The City.”

The Recreation and Park 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.

Constructed for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the palace has become a symbol of San Francisco’s endurance, history and innovation. The rotunda and building were originally intended for demolition in 1916 after the world’s fair, but a group of citizens fought to preserve 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 of Fine Arts is a San Francisco icon and a core part of the neighborhood in the Marina district,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell, who represents the area in which the palace is located. “We have spent a great deal of effort over the past few decades ensuring that the lagoon and the core structures are built for the future, and now we need to focus on the rear building where the Exploratorium once lived, which is seismically unsafe, and look towards the future.”

The palace is now occupied by Innovation Hangar, a nonprofit that offers exhibits, workshops, community events, educational programming and open workspaces in the palace, which opened in February, exactly 100 years after the opening of the world’s fair. It holds a short-term lease through March 2016, which could be extended.

The next lease awarded for the palace will last up to 55 years, and the tenant will ultimately be responsible for nearly $20 million in improvements to the 143,996-square-foot palace, including the former Exploratorium space and theater space.

Sarah Ballard, a spokeswoman for Rec and Park, said talks of finding a long-term tenant for the palace began more than two years ago when an advisory committee helped scope what would benefit the site and The City.

“Our goal is to find a tenant that increases public access, that has an economic engine in place that allows for the $20 million necessary to bring the building up to code, and that continues to enhance the cultural fabric of San Francisco,” Ballard said.

She added that the future tenant will ultimately be required to preserve the palace’s theater, or build a similar-sized theater elsewhere at the site.

Meanwhile, in a similar but separate effort to preserve the arts element of the palace, the dance organization World Arts West has submitted a letter of protest to The City after its proposal of a Center for Global Arts and Cultures was not selected among the three tentative prospective tenants.

“The arts are under enormous stress for survival in San Francisco,” said Julie Mushet, executive director of World Arts West, which has held performances at the Palace of Fine Arts theater for 26 years.

Mushet is hopeful that the group’s proposal will be included as a fourth option to go before the Rec and Park Commission next week.

“It really is the only proposal that preserves the original purpose of the Palace of Fine Arts,” Mushet said.

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