Former CCSF trustee pledges to transform decrepit Mission theater into film school 

click to enlarge The old Tower Theater on Mission Street in the Mission stopped showing movies in the late 1990s. It has been unused since the mid-2000s after a community church briefly occupied the space. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The old Tower Theater on Mission Street in the Mission stopped showing movies in the late 1990s. It has been unused since the mid-2000s after a community church briefly occupied the space.

It could soon be lights, camera and action once again for the long-vacant, century-old Tower Theater in the Mission. But the script for its revival has an interesting twist.

Rodrigo Santos, a former City College of San Francisco trustee and longtime structural engineer, has entered into a five-year lease for the site at 2465 Mission St. with the intent of transforming the dilapidated building into a state-of-the-art film school for CCSF.

Santos was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to serve on the CCSF Board of Trustees in 2012. He has also provided his structural engineering services pro-bono for a number of San Francisco's nonprofit development projects. Though he does not currently serve on the board, Santos plans to offer structural engineering work and much of the construction free of cost for CCSF.

Today, the interior walls of the boarded-up theater are splashed with graffiti and a pile of theater seats are rotting inside. Built in 1911, the theater has sat vacant for a decade after it ceased movie screenings in the late 1990s and was briefly used as a community church until the mid-2000s.

Santos, whose firm Santos & Urrutia is also located in the Mission, noted the theater in its current state is an eyesore. Additionally, he said, the school's current film department is sorely lacking in resources.

"This building has been sitting idle for awhile, attracting pigeons," Santos said. This project, he added, will "help the school, help that particular stretch of Mission Street, and bring out the love of films that I've always had.

"It's sort of a perfect storm, the combination of three things that I want to do."

Although Santos has yet to file project information with the Planning Department, he has already retained the services of local architect Leonardo Zylberberg, whose initial sketches for the film school include a ground-level screening room, a rooftop amphitheater and a six-story building likely for classrooms.

"The building, to be a school, needs to have a different organizational structure," Zylberberg said. "You can't just patch it up."

click to enlarge This is a preliminary design concept for the film school building. - COURTESY RENDERING
  • Courtesy Rendering
  • This is a preliminary design concept for the film school building.

Located two blocks from CCSF's Mission campus, the building on the 60 foot wide and 122.5 foot deep lot also needs to be upgraded to meet seismic and accessibility requirements. Such retrofits alone for a building that size would cost around $1.2 million, Santos said.

City records do not indicate the seismic-safety condition of the building, because seismic requirements that went into effect after the building was constructed in 1911 would only be triggered by new work. Other than for the removal of the marquee in 2013, there have been no permit applications with the Department of Building Inspection associated with the property.

Santos declined to speculate on the entire cost of renovating the theater or disclose the cost of the lease. He said he plans to solicit donations as the project moves forward, but will finance the structural engineering and much of the construction out-of-pocket.

CCSF's cinema department, comprised of four full-time faculty and around 15 part-time faculty, currently operates out of one classroom and two computer labs at Cloud Hall on the main campus on Ocean Avenue. The department previously taught some 600 students, but that number has dwindled to about 450 in recent years.

Lidia Szajko, the department's chair, said film studies are desperately seeking new facilities, particularly after plans to build a new performing arts center were put on hold when the school's accreditation was threatened in 2013.

"There has been a dire need for adequate facilities for the cinema department," Szajko said.

Ideally, Szajko said, a film studies facility would include a sound stage, mixing studio, and various production and post-production labs. In their space currently, "the classroom is supposed to be our big studio. There is not a dedicated screening room," she added.

Santos said he recognizes that the lack of a new performing arts center is a sensitive and distressing subject for CCSF, and that he hopes plans for a new film school will ease that tension.

"The only thing I deal with as a structural engineer for most of the buildings happening around the Mission ... is pain and suffering and controversy," Santos said. "I hope that this building offers the opposite. This is something that is going to serve the community, it's going to serve City College, it will serve the Latino community."

Its location is also within two blocks of CCSF's Mission Campus, where the cinema department initially sought to move more than a year ago until the existing available spaces were found to be inadequate.

  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner

CCSF spokesman Jeff Hamilton said Santos has submitted a proposal to Virginia Parras, campus president, who as of earlier this month had yet to review it.

"We're in the very preliminary stages of looking at this," Hamilton said. "We don't know the details at the moment." He added, "We're very grateful for Rodrigo Santos for wanting to contribute to the success of City College and to the film students."

Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation that aims to protect neighborhood theaters in The City, also supports the idea for Tower Theater.

"The hope is always that the historic use is honored and preserved in a meaningful way," Felder said of San Francisco's aging theaters. "A film school would be a pretty exciting way to honor its history."

The project will have to undergo planning, historical and environmental reviews. Neighborhood notification, along with a building department review that includes seismic upgrades and full handicap accessibility compliance, will also be required.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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