Updated: Feb 13, 2019
The SF Board of Appeals ruled against the developers after a large Mission crowd spoke against the illegal demolition of the iconic facade and sign.
The San Francisco Board of Appeals voted on Feb. 6 to deny the property owners the right to build a gym at 2551 Mission St at the site of the former Cine Latino, whose historic facade they had illegally demolished. In reaching this decision, the Board ruled that the San Francisco Planning Department had not made an error in their judgement nor abused their discretion when they ruled in Sept. 2018 to revoke the gym permits from the Cort family, who own the site.
Mission community outrage
Dozens of Mission community residents and advocates came out to the hearing, many expressing outrage at the demolition of the iconic neighborhood facade, and urging the Board of Appeals not to restore the permits for the gym project.
“If we allow this kind of project of cultural erasure, cultural genocide, we are all accomplices here, not just Vera Cort and her accomplices,” neighbor Davian Contreras told the Board.
Contreras, who grew up around the corner from Cine Latino on Capp St., recounted how he watched the developers first leave the project vacant, then damage the facade, then demolish the facade, and finally hide what they had done in their newest permit applications.
“They broke the law. They were not permitted to do this work,” he said.
Alicia Bustos Sandoval, an organizer with the Housing Rights Committee who grew up in the Mission, recounted the loss of the many community theaters over the years as gentrification swept through her neighborhood. “I feel like I blinked and they were closed. They were all gone,” she said.
Bustos Sandoval described the former Cine Latino theater as “a community space for families” that she and her father attended together regularly. “It was a time to watch our favorite movies, but also a time to bond with my dad,” she said. Bustos Sandoval urged the City not to approve any further permits on the site until the Cine Latino sign and facade had first been restored.
Property owners must start over
With this Board of Appeals ruling against the property owners, new permits can only be obtained to build a gym or any other project at the site by starting the entire project proposal process all over, beginning with submitting plans to the Planning Department, hosting at least one community input session, and gaining project approval from the Planning Commission.
Prior to voting down the gym project, several members of the Board of Appeals expressed concern that it could take the landlord a long time to build something new on the site if the revoked permits were upheld by the Board. Community members made it very clear that they did not wish to see the property owner’s illegal behavior rewarded after such harm had been done to the neighborhood, and the Board eventually agreed.
“The fact that [the facade] was demolished is, for me, an act of violence against our community,” Mission native Vicky Castro told the Board. “When you take away cultural icons, cultural legacy from us -- that’s cultural erasure,” she said.
A history of bad behavior in the neighborhood
Carnaval’s Artistic Director, Roberto Hernandez, recounted to the Board the Cort family’s record of harmful behaviors in the neighborhood. These include painting over a community mural and evicting numerous nonprofits, among them a Spanish-language radio station, from one of their Mission St. buildings to accommodate a tech company. Hernandez said that the property owners left the Cine Latino building vacant and in neglect for many years when it could have been serving the neighborhood.
“That could easily have been used to provide shelter for homeless people. It could have been a site for affordable housing. A lot of proposals have been given to this family and they refused to even talk about any other options that the community could have used,” Hernandez said.
Seventeen years earlier, a previous Board of Appeals had overturned the Planning Department’s similar ruling that the gym did not meet the needs of the neighborhood, citing concerns about gentrification. This time around the verdict was different -- the Board of Appeals denied the request of the Cort family to reverse the Planning Department’s ruling.
A representative for the Cort family had argued at the hearing that they had knocked down the facade because the concrete was in bad condition and was unsafe. The Planning Department’s representative, Acting Deputy Zoning Administrator Scott Sanchez, countered that this facade had been ruled a historic resource and there was a legal process for seeking City permission if it truly needed to be demolished, a step that the Cort development team had skipped. He also pointed to a lack of progress at the site and a failure to properly maintain the project over its nearly twenty year history.
“Putting holes in the building, not maintaining it, not weatherizing it, not protecting it. Those are actions that raise concerns to me,” Sanchez told the Board.
Photos of the site from shortly before the demolition show the facade appearing in relatively good shape, despite having had holes punched in its window areas, exposing the interior of the building to the weather without protection for years.
Years of problems at the Mission Street site
At the hearing a neighboring Mission St. property owner and one of their business tenants told the Board that they have had many problems with the 2551 Mission St. site for years, including a lack of care for the site, abandoned scaffolding causing graffiti problems, garbage collecting on to the vacant site, and a rat infestation caused by the garbage problem.
Richard Einselen, owner of the Mission Street Sports Bar, described the many problems he has endured as a neighboring business owner who had to deal with the Cort’s abandoned site that has at times been filled with rats and trash. “It’s a complete disregard for the businesses in the area,” he said.
The owner of the building that houses Einselen’s Mission Street Sports Bar, Josette Maury, described how in addition to the years of neglect at the Cine Latino site, which she called “a garbage pit, an eyesore,” the workers at the site had also cracked her building’s skylight with cement. She said that she supported the Planning Department’s earlier ruling to revoke the Cort family’s gym permits.
“I applaud the Planning Department decision,” Maury said.