The Metreon is a tough sell in a rough economy

A decade ago, the glimmering facade of the Metreon — a digital wonderland built by a technology giant — sprouted in SoMa.

The cavernous, four-story retail center was built by Sony and opened in 1999 on public land at Fourth and Mission streets as a flagship haven for gamers, but it seems to have missed its mark. Now, the nearly vacant shopping center could end up as a big-box mall with a Target store, a move that some in the community are questioning.

Sony opened the Metreon as a showcase, and it planned to open scores of similar arcade-focused, theme park-style retail centers around the world. But those plans were dumped after the experiments in San Francisco and a handful of other cities failed to attract expected hordes of electronics aficionados.

The company sold the building in 2006 to a real estate firm and Westfield Group, a global shopping center giant that owns the nearby Westfield San Francisco Centre shopping mall.

Westfield and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which owns and governs the land, announced in March that the Metreon would be overhauled and re-engineered as a food and restaurant destination.

Because the Metreon was designed as a haven for gamers, its awkward architecture bucked conventional trends. The building was crafted in a way that creates a disconnect between the inside and outside worlds. Large walls were built where windows would normally be placed.

In March, officials outlined plans to overhaul the building by redesigning its entrances and creating stronger connections between the center and the surrounding neighborhood and an adjacent park.

Financing for the construction plans was expected to be effortlessly secured after famous New York restaurant Tavern on the Green agreed to occupy the entire top floor of the building, which during a recession was regarded as something of a business coup, officials said at the time.

As a precursor to the building’s gastro-centric transformation, a farmers market was opened on the ground floor in space that was recently occupied by a PlayStation store.

But Tavern on the Green filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two months later, and in September the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announced that the restaurant’s license to operate in Central Park would be transferred to a new restaurateur.

The restaurant subsequently dumped its San Francisco expansion plans, making it difficult for Metreon officials to secure loans to fund the building’s needed overhaul, Redevelopment Agency Project Manager Amy Neches said.

Construction efforts were due to begin next year, but the timeline has been thrown into disarray because of financing complications created by the restaurant’s bankruptcy, according to Neches.

“[Westfield] hoped to start in the first quarter of 2010, but their ability to start is based in part on their ability to get tenants,” she said. “Their ability to borrow money is based on being able to show they’re going to be able to get tenants.”

Reports say Westfield is in talks to lease a floor of the Metreon to discount home-goods retailer Target.

Target and Westfield officials declined to discuss the potential tenancy or answer questions about the building.

“We’re excited about Metreon’s future,” Westfield spokeswoman Catharine Dickey said in a brief statement e-mailed to The Examiner. “There is significant interest by a wide range of appealing tenants.”

Supervisor Chris Daly, whose district includes SoMa, said he generally supports discount stores, but he’s concerned about neighborhood and traffic impacts if a Target opens in the building.

“It seems to be a cheapening of what the Metreon was built to be,” Daly said. “I’d want some pretty thorough review before supporting it.”

The Metreon is on two heavily trafficked streets in The City’s museum district, but it’s also at the edge of distinct residential populations that live in alley homes and residential hotels.

The affected surrounding populations include a large number of young people, particularly Filipino-American youth, who lost one of their few local hangout spots when the gaming features of the Metreon disappeared, according to SoMa neighborhood activist Jim Meko.

“They get the hairy eyeball as soon as they enter the front door,” he said.

But the opinions of neighbors may count for nothing.

San Francisco law generally requires a neighborhood’s approval before a chain store like Target can open in a new location, according to Larry Badiner, the chief zoning administrator at the San Francisco Planning Department. But the Metreon is unaffected by those laws because it’s on land governed by the Redevelopment Agency and because it’s located downtown, he said.

The Metreon by the numbers

4 Stories in the Metreon

120,000 Square footage of block it sits on

$25 million Improvements approved in March by San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

10 Years since Metreon was built by Sony

3 Years since Westfield took over lease

27 Years remaining on Westfield’s lease

36 Additional years Westfield can extend the lease when it expires

Source: San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Success of Metreon theater may have doomed its rivals

A theater preservation group says the Metreon’s only successful long-term tenant has taken customers away from neighborhood cinemas, contributing to their decline.

The AMC Loews has enjoyed a strong flow of customers to its third-floor location since the Metreon opened in 1999.

During that time, a decades-old trend in which dozens of neighborhood theaters shut down has continued in The City.

“All of the downtown theater complexes that have been built have had significant effects on neighborhood theaters,” said Alfonso Felder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. “They get whatever films they want, whenever they want them, and they absolutely dominate online ticketing.”

Large corporate online ticket Web sites often incorrectly claim that Internet booking is unavailable for neighborhood theaters, and they recommend screenings in Marin and the East Bay multiplexes before suggesting movies that are playing in San Francisco neighborhoods, according to Felder.

“Our hope is that consumers will take the extra time to look at what’s playing in their neighborhood theaters first — but it’s hard when they’re attached to their iPhones,” he said.

AMC Loews’ public affairs office did not return a phone call seeking comment. — John Upton

Filipino group eyes building for native, local arts space

Filipino and Filipino-American artists could begin presenting their work in the Metreon next year.

The San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center is in lease negotiations with Westfield to move into the Metreon, according to spokesman Dennis Marzan.

The 8-year-old cultural center aims to move from an office that it sublets in SoMa into a performance and administrative space by summer.

“We want to showcase arts and performances from the local Filipino community in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and we also want to bring artists over from the Philippines,” Marzan said.

“There are existing Filipino arts organizations, but we want to be more of a bridge to connect the arts scene in the Philippines and the Filipino-American arts scene here,” he said.

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