The Palace of Fine Arts in Search of New Tenant

The Palace of Fine Arts, a symbol of San Francisco’s perseverance and innovation, and the last remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, faces yet another transformation as a historical landmark.

Three prospective tenants, all of whom have been approved by the Park and Recreation Commission have proposed to renovate the palace and turn it into a commercial destination. While this is not the first reconstruction of the building, San Francisco residents worry that the culture and history of the palace will be lost.

The palace, which is nestled by the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco’s waterfront, was originally built in 1915 to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and showcase the city’s recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake. After the 10 month exposition, all of the fair’s buildings were demolished except for the colonnade and rotunda that make up the iconic Palace of Fine Arts.  

Since its original construction, the historical building has housed everything from tennis courts to WWII tanks. After being completely torn down and renovated in the 1960s, the palace became home to the Exploratorium, a science museum founded in 1969.

In 2012 the museum moved to Pier 15, leaving the exhibition hall vacant. Although it was continuously used, nothing was available to the public until 2015 when it re-opened its doors as the Innovation Hangar. Unfortunately the short-term lease for the non-profit museum will be up in February 2016, leaving the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission in need of another tenant.

“Our goal is to find a tenant that increases public access, that has an economic engine in place…and that continues to enhance the cultural fabric of San Francisco,” said Sarah Ballard, a spokeswoman for the Recreation and Park Commission who explained that the search for a long-term tenant began over two years ago.

The commission received seven proposals in May 2015, and by November 2015, an independent panel, made up of a variety of community members, narrowed down the proposals from seven to three. The three plans incorporate commercial sites such as hotels and restaurants that would house historic artifacts, and also include a space to keep the palace a center for the performing arts.

Shortly after the proposals were published and announced by the commission, Kristen Selberg, a local San Francisco resident, created an online petition on urging the commission and Mayor Edwin Lee to preserve the site as a cultural and educational center.

“Do not destroy this historical monument,” said Andrea Fuenzalida, a San Francisco resident in support of the petition. “It’s one of the few most beautiful structures of tranquility left in San Francisco and should remain intact as the “Palace of Fine Arts”…for all of San Francisco, including residents, visitors and wildlife to share.”

“I’m signing this because I believed culturally and historically significant landmarks should NOT be sold to the highest bidder for the sole purpose of the wealthy elite,” said Alicia Kat, another petition supporter. “The fact that you are even considering is an unbelievable insult to the citizens of the Bay Area…you should be ashamed of yourself Mr. Lee, for even considering these landmarks for someone’s rampant greed.”

Despite the 22,000 signatures accumulated by Selberg’s petition and the large number of residents that attended the community meeting on November 19, the Recreation and Park Commission unanimously voted in support of the three proposals.

“These things are important to San Francisco, especially with what we are dealing with right now; such rapid change in the city that’s not necessarily for the best,” said Selberg, in an article in the Examiner. “San Franciscans are just begging to hang on to something for themselves and for the city.”

The winning tenant will be awarded a 55-year lease and be expected to preserve the palace’s theatre. Unfortunately, the space does require nearly $20 million in restoration and repair, all of which will be the responsibility of the incoming developer.

“The Palace of Fine Arts is a San Francisco icon and a core part of the neighborhood in the Marina District,” said Mark Farrell, the District Supervisor of where the building is located. “We have spent a great deal of effort of the past few decades ensuring that the lagoon and core structures are built for the future, and now we need to focus on the rear building where the Exploratorium once lived, which is seismically unsafe, and look toward the future.”

The three bids include The Maybeck Center at the Palace of Fine Arts proposed by TMG Partners and Flynn Properties; San Francisco Arts, Crafts, Community and Hospitality proposed by Equity Community Builders; and San Francisco at Museum at The Palace Consortium (SFMAP) proposed by Bob and Ink Mendelsohn, former President and CEO of real estate developer Republic Metropolitan, and his wife.

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The three developers will submit more-detailed proposals in May 2016 and until then the financial details are currently unavailable. The Recreation and Park Commission expect to reach a decision within the next three years.

“We are pleased so many people are interested in the future of the Palace of Fine Arts and hope they stay engaged in the process,” said Sarah Madland in an Examiner article, Director of  Policy and Public affairs.

For more information on the reconstruction of The Palace of Fine Arts click here.






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