The cushioned seats and projector have been removed from the historic Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street, but San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani wants them back.
On Tuesday, March 10, Stefani plans to introduce legislation to save the few remaining single-screen theaters in San Francisco. The Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors must approve the measure, which would require conditional use permits to be issued to change the operation of any single-screen theater building.
It’s a measure the owners and real estate agents say ignores the economics of single-screen theaters, many of which have closed in the city as mega theaters have grown in popularity and rents have skyrocketed. Owners can’t be forced to operate money-losing businesses, they say.
But Stefani says something has to be done to save this part of historic San Francisco neighborhoods.
“The Clay has special value to the residents of my district, and it is one of the most accessible cultural institutions in the neighborhood,” she said. “I cannot tell you how many people I have heard from, residents to merchants, as to how much of a loss to the city it will be to lose the Clay.”
Since January, the movie house has sat dark and empty, its storefront papered over, its marquee blank and its red-on-white neon blade unlit. And if Stefani’s measure is put into effect, the building’s owner, Balgobind Jaiswal, expects it to stay that way, maybe for years, as a blight on one of the city’s last thriving shopping strips, because he does not believe any theater operator can survive at the Clay. He said the Clay had been steadily been losing money, which is why its longtime operator, Landmark Theatres of Los Angeles, finally pulled out.
“This is very depressing,” Jaiswal told The Chronicle when reached by phone Thursday, March 5, in Paris, where he is on a buying trip for his own shop on Fillmore Street. “Any empty space is an eyesore, and it is bad for the street.”
Gary Meyer, co-founder of Landmark Theatres and now a film programming consultant, confirmed that the Clay was never a money maker. He described recent attendance figures at the Clay as “miserable” — partly due to the programming of foreign and independent films, and partly due to the constraints of running a single screen. If a movie opens as a dud, there is no smaller room to place it, as there is at a multi-screen theater. The operator is stuck with it for at least a week, maybe longer, depending upon the deal with the distributor. When the weekly numbers are distributed to the industry, the situation worsens.
“It has been frustrating watching the grosses at the Clay,” Meyer said. “No distributor with a major film wants to show there.”
Aware that attendance for many screenings at the Clay is sometimes in the low single figures, Stefani said she still believes that if the place were spruced up and a new operator were brought in to liven up the programming, it could succeed. That’s why her legislation, which must be approved by the board, will put up barriers to any conversion of the Clay and also cover the Vogue, Roxie and Castro theaters — the last remaining single-screen commercial houses in the city.
Her proposal follows a similar move made last summer by Supervisor Aaron Peskin to save the Punch Line Comedy Club, legislation that set up a moratorium restricting the use of the space for anything other than live performance. The club, near the Embarcadero Center, was at risk of eviction so the space could be converted to offices for Google but the moratorium helped restore a lease for the Punch Line.
While standing in the dark at the gutted theater on Friday afternoon, Stefani said, “I see lots of potential.”
For a few years, the Clay has quietly been shopped as commercial space and has recently had interest from a hardware store and a wellness and fitness center, according to Pam Mendelsohn of Maven Properties, the broker for the space.
“These are all special institutions,” Stefani said, “so before we change the use of one of these theaters I want to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep them open.”
The 440-seat Clay, which dates to around 1910, closed in late January when Landmark abruptly gave 30-day notice on its month-to-month lease. Landmark could not break even, though it paid rent of only $1 a square foot, subsidized by Jaiswal. By the end of February, everything except the screen, the drapes and the lobby carpeting was removed. Even the snack bar is gone.
Jaiswal paid $5 million for the building in 2008, attracted by the attached corner retail space, which he rents to Alice and Olivia, a chain of women’s clothing boutiques. “The movie theater did not interest me,” he said.
The going rate for quality storefront retail space on Fillmore Street is between $8 and $9 a square foot, said Mendelsohn. Jaiswal is asking $4.50 a square foot because the Clay is zoned as a theater and needs major renovations, including an Americans with Disabilities Act upgrade.
“I cannot afford to put major work into it, because I cannot rent it to anybody, so what would be the point?” said Jaiswal. “But the people who want to save the theater are calling the shots.”
Jaiswal said he has already put $100,000 into architectural plans to turn the Clay into a space that combines movies with a cafe or wine bar, an idea that Stefani endorses. But two years of marketing has not brought forth an interested partner in this plan. The only offer has been to purchase the building by individuals representing the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, a nonprofit that owns the Vogue and Balboa theaters, with plans to purchase the Opera Plaza Cinemas.
Jaiswal has offered the Clay for lease to the Theater Foundation for $3.50 a foot, but the Theater Foundation is interested only in purchasing.
“The Theater Foundation did make an offer to purchase the Clay and remains interested in acquiring the theater,” said Alfonso Felder, a San Francisco Giants executive who is also a founder of the Neighborhood Theater Foundation.
Felder would not provide the offer price, but Mendelsohn said that on Feb. 24 she received an offer for $3.5 million for the 4,700-square-foot space, well below the market value. Jaiswal said he would sell at this price only if he can retain the air space over the two-story theater, which he believes could be rezoned residential so he could build condominiums atop the Clay.
Jaiswal said he would not be at the Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting, but said if preservationists feel so strongly about the Clay, they should make an offer that either includes the value of the airspace above the Clay or fairly compensates him for it.
Stefani said she thinks the Neighborhood Theater Foundation might be the last and best hope for saving the Clay, which is why she has offered to broker a deal.
“It is my intent to bring those two parties together in a neutral location,” she said. “We want everyone to come together and find a resolution.”
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Instagram: sfchronicle_art