Updated: Jan 28, 2019
The Board of Appeals will once again decide if this developer with a troubled past in the Mission can continue their 18-year-old plan to build a large gym on Mission Street.
At their upcoming Feb. 6 hearing, the Cort family will ask the Board of Appeals to reverse a 2018 Planning Department decision to revoke their building permits to construct a gym in the more than 100-year-old-space at 2551 Mission Street. The Planning Department’s decision to revoke the plans was based on the Cort’s illegal demolition of the building’s historic facade without the required City review.
The project’s building permits were initially suspended by the Planning Department on Jan. 30, 2018 by the Department’s Zoning Administrator, Scott Sanchez. In a following Jan. 31 letter to the City Attorney asking for assistance with any potential legal action, Director of Planning John Rahaim stated that the department was suspending the project’s building permits due to the construction “exceeding the scope of work previously approved … specifically the demolition of the front facade, resulting in the demolition of a historic resource ….” An additional letter by Sanchez on Sept. 6 of the same year revoked the permits.
A symbol of cultural erasure
For Mission natives, this historic theater space between 21st and 22nd streets on Mission Street held many valuable community memories. The 1913 theater went through a number of names and marquees over the years, but is best remembered by those still around today for its more recent eras as the Crown Theatre and, most recently, Cine Latino. Then its facade was abruptly -- and illegally -- removed in 2012, leaving behind only a dark hole in the shell of a building.
Mission native Vicky Castro remembers the moment she was out walking with her boyfriend and they came across the theater and realized it was missing its facade.
“I was in shock. It was one of those moments when you let out a gasp. The sign is not there!” said Castro. “And then we went from shock to rage.”
Castro remembers spending many of her childhood Saturdays at Cine Latino. She and her best friend divided their time between Cine Latino and the New Mission Theater across the street (now the Alamo Drafthouse Theater) watching many short movies all day long.
“The two theaters played different movies. Cine Latino played more Menudo, and then we’d cross the street to watch Cantinflas movies at the New Mission Theater,” said Castro, describing how many of the neighborhood kids performed this weekend ritual together. “The movies were like our babysitter … I have very fond memories … We all have stories.”
The destruction of the theater facade
After buying the property in May of 1998 for $815,000, in 2001 the Cort family applied with the City to change the building from a theater to a health club/climbing gym. The request was denied by the Planning Commission, but this decision was overturned shortly after (in February 2002) by a ruling from the Board of Appeals -- the same body who will be hearing the case again this February -- almost exactly 17 years later.
Somewhere in between, the theater building, closed in the late 80s after damages from the Loma Prieta earthquake, had its famous facade demolished. Photographs and public descriptions reveal that in the summer of 2012 construction crews began taking the sign apart and it was gone by July 28, and that by Sept. 2013 the entire facade had been stripped away and only essential structural steel beams remained.
According to City records, this project has compiled a long list of complaints over the years, filed by both community members and the City itself. Community complaints include concerns that the construction work was being done in a “dangerous manner,” that the project was doing work “beyond the scope” of its permits, and that construction work was sometimes starting between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., which “makes it difficult to sleep.” The City’s Planning Department later logged its own complaint in Nov. 2017, noting the “illegal demolition” of the theater facade and referring the case to the Department of Building Inspection for review.
A property owner with a difficult Mission past
The project’s owners, the Cort family, own more than a dozen properties in the Mission and have a challenging history in the neighborhood that includes charges of harassing and evicting residential tenants, destroying a Mission mural, and displacing dozens of commercial tenants, including nonprofits and immigration lawyers. The family has faced several lawsuits in response to these actions.
In the 1990s, the family notoriously cleared the U.S. Bank building on Mission Street of its more than two-dozen nonprofits, immigration lawyers, and small businesses in order to make room for a tech company. Perhaps most infamously, in 1997 the Corts evicted two seniors in their 70s, sister and brother Margarita Ubeda and Fernando Hernandez, along with another family, immediately after purchasing a residential property on 20th Street. This sibling eviction followed a series of harassing behaviors intended to drive the seniors from their home, their attorney, Raquel Fox of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, recounted at the time to SF Weekly.
Robert Cort Jr., who had the property transferred to him during the process, denied the various allegations against him to the newspaper at the time. MissionWord reached out to the Cort family via a representative to comment on the upcoming hearing and intent for the building, but as of publication time they had not replied to our request.
Even today, 22 years later, the strong impression made from this eviction has not left Fox, the tenant attorney on the eviction. “I drove by there the other day and I thought about that case,” she said. “It was so unfortunate.”
Mission community mobilizing against the gym project
The fondness for the Cine Latino space has extended to the younger generations though its highly recognizable, iconic marquee sign as well as the understanding of the deep connection many of their parents had to the space and reactions to the demolition have been understandably negative.
Noemi Perdomo, a volunteer with Carnaval and other community events, was born in the Mission and grew up in the neighborhood hearing her parents talk about Cine Latino, which stopped showing movies shortly before she was born. They attended often while it was still showing movies through the 1980s. Her father for a time even used to run the projector at nights, recalled Perdomo.
Perdomo recounted how upset she was when she first saw what had happened to the building.
“When I passed by I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is crazy. Why did they take off the front part of the building?’ When I saw that, it just reminded me of how my dad and my mom used to go there.”
She has vowed that the space would not become yet “another gym,” and said she plans to go to the appeal hearing to try to ensure that the permits are not reinstated.
“We’ve got to stop these people,” Perdomo said. “It would be catastrophic if this place becomes a gym.”
Perdomo said that even though she now lives in Daly City, she still spends much of her time in the Mission and the cultural displacement she is seeing in the neighborhood is very upsetting to her -- and she hasn’t given up on trying to stop it.
“There is a lot of meaning in fighting for the Mission. I don’t live in the Mission, but I was born and raised in the Mission, and it hurts,” she lamented.
As for Castro, who works regularly in the neighborhood on issues related to cultural preservation, she said she also plans to attend the appeal hearing with friends, and has some ideas for how the project should proceed at this point.
“I think there needs to be a community process -- what does the community need now?” She said. “Change can come, but let’s preserve the identity of what a place has been so it has some connection to the past. Or else why even call it the Mission?”
She said that she thinks that developers who demolish or homogenize the properties they purchase are missing out on not only maintaining the culture of the neighborhood, but are also failing to understand the business value in keeping these iconic spaces.
“Respecting and honoring the past will help whatever business go in be successful,” she said, describing how many of the new spaces being built aren’t as appealing to either the Mission old-timers or the newcomers and tourists who are attracted to the neighborhood character in part based on these older, iconic buildings.
“It gives [the neighborhood] its personality,” she said.