Palace of Fine Arts (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Palace of Fine Arts debated on KQED Forum with Examiner reporter, parks and arts advocates

The debate about whether to include hotels and restaurants among possibilities for the future long-term use of the Palace of Fine Arts heated up Friday, less than a week before the Recreation and Park Commission is scheduled to formally narrow down the pool of prospective tenants.

KQED Forum listeners joined Laura Dudnick, staff writer for the San Francisco Examiner; Sarah Madland, policy and public affairs director for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department; and Julie Mushet, executive director of World Arts West that submitted an unsuccessful proposal for the Palace for a discussion on whether the site should remain exclusively used 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.

But the possibility of turning even a portion of the Palace into a hotel generated immediate backlash from San Francisco residents, who want the 143,996-square-foot Palace preserved for arts, education and cultural purposes.

An online petition urging the Recreation and Parks Department and Mayor Ed Lee to preserve the site as a cultural and educational center had garnered nearly 18,000 signatures as of Friday afternoon, and numerous callers on the KQED Forum expressed concern over adding a hotel to the Palace.

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.

Efforts to preserve 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 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 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.

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