Palace of Fine Arts: A Classic Revision

Palace of fine arts, San Francisco, California, USA

Palace of fine arts, San Francisco, California, USA

San Francisco considering future of historic Palace of Fine Arts.


By Jack Stubbs

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]an Francisco’s historic Palace of Fine Arts, widely regarded as one of the most beloved sites in the city, is set for big changes in the coming months.

Last fall, the city’s Recreation and Park Department initiated a citywide public outreach process to discuss the future of the Marina District site. The department issued a request for concept proposals (RFCP) and later requests for proposals to restore and repurpose the site. The department plans to choose finalists in September and select the space’s new tenant by spring 2016.

[contextly_sidebar id=”nToFo95f1hPMD6WpypP5GeQ7vQwQ7vv8″]“The proposed uses vastly range, with a lot of great and very creative ideas, so I think there’s going to be a very competitive selection process,” said Allan Low, vice president of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Indeed, the spirited and engaged interest in the Palace—a vision brought to life by the late California architect Bernard Maybeck—is hardly surprising, considering the site’s colorful history.

The 126,000-square-foot space, nestled against the Presidio near Doyle Drive and the Golden Gate Bridge, was built for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which commemorated the city’s sense of hope and renewal after the 1906 earthquake. More recently, the Palace housed the Exploratorium science museum for 44 years until it moved to the Embarcadero in 2012.

The Recreation and Park Commission required that site proposals should feature public and recreational use while preserving the building’s history. Developers also were asked to bear in mind the financial viability of their proposals.

“The key is the recognition that this is really an iconic public asset” and will be used by the entire city, Low said.

Proposed uses for the Palace also had to: include strategies to mitigate traffic and parking impacts to the local neighborhood; retain the existing theater or a comparable space for performing arts; preserve some notable existing architecture on site; provide food or dining options; and be compatible with the adjacent outdoor space and surrounding neighborhood.

Throughout the approval and decision-making process, the Recreation and Park Department and The Palace of Fine Arts Advisory Committee will conduct community outreach for public input about the proposals, Low said.

Restoring and redeveloping the site will be costly: the Palace’s new tenant will have to invest roughly $10 million to renovate and improve the former Exploratorium space as well as The Palace of Fine Arts Theater. The total outlay—including soft costs such as recommended seismic improvements—for renovations to the site will be close to $20 million, according to the RFCP.

However, costs might be even higher. “When you add all the infrastructure, utilities and interior improvements required, plus all the soft costs associated with it, this is well over a $100 million project,” said John Clawson, principal of San Francisco-based Equity Community Builders, which submitted a proposal.

Because the Palace is a highly recognized city location, the developers’ proposals strive to honor the tradition and history associated with the space. Robert Cole, artistic and executive director at the Palace of Fine Arts Foundation, said the foundation’s proposal continues the Palace’s tradition as an artistic institution.

“Our proposal is the only one having to do with the performing arts and [the] arts in general. The building itself is a major work of art, architecturally. It seems to be that it’s only reasonable that it should provide further arts to the general public,” said Cole, a long-time executive in the performing arts and venue industry, who is the general director of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition.

The foundation’s proposal also enhances the arts on site with a plan “to bring the existing theater up to a higher level of operational and artistic quality and organizational functionality,” he said.

Other proposals integrate the arts into the space by offering interactive exhibits.

“[We’re] animating and activating the public spaces with art,” Clawson said. “We would work with local artists to have some permanent exhibits and some rotating exhibits. Then we would look out to the community to have galleries, classes and performance space.”

Also, some proposals emphasize the recreational potential for the space.

The joint proposal between TMG Partners and Flynn Properties serves as one example. “Our proposal is precisely what I think [the Recreation and Park Department] was asking for in terms of recreation,” said Matt Field, chief investment officer at TMG. “There’s an existing theater that has a very large presence there that we’re proposing to retain and invest in. It’s a huge community resource that we really see as integral to the history to the building and to how the community uses the building [recreationally].”

Along with TMG’s renovation of the existing theater, Field said that the companies’ proposal to add a small boutique hotel emphasizes recreation. “There’s quite a history of hotels being integrated into recreation and parks,” he said. “I think that we will see people who already visit San Francisco being guests in the hotel who [otherwise] are busing or driving here to see the site.”

The Bay Club Co.’s proposal highlights the space as a recreational resource, which also honors the Palace’s history, according to Annie Appel, the club’s executive vice president of marketing. “The Palace has a history as a recreational space: it was an indoor tennis club after the Pan Pacific Exposition,” she said. The Bay Club plans to offer activities such as tennis, basketball, yoga and badminton. “Our proposal was very focused on recreation in all of the different definitions in terms of gathering, socializing, being able to be active in sports and fitness and really celebrating the beauty of the space,” Appel added.

Mirran Raphaely, co-founder of The Arcadium LLC, said its proposal—which envisions the Palace as a communal, interactive and therapeutic destination—overall meets the needs of the city. When the Palace was built, it ushered in a “feeling [of] triumph and it represented a grand vision [at] that time,” she said. “The Arcadium provides a grand vision for that space, akin to its history, but really bearing in mind a need for its future.” Raphaely, former CEO of international brand Dr. Hauschka Skin Care, founded The Arcadium with developer Barney Aldridge.

While public access to the Palace was a Recreation and Park Department requirement, it was challenging to also maintain financial viability and revenue for the site, developers said.

“There has to be a revenue-generating element to be able to support the redevelopment and the ongoing operations,” said Clawson of ECB. “The hospitality use [in ECB’s proposal] maybe best satisfies that. It allows the ground-floor public spaces to remain publicly accessible, but they’re still managed and operated and maintained and funded by the overall hospitality use.”

Field said the TMG and Flynn Properties proposal “strikes a balance where we respect and celebrate the architecture, the history, the uses and the public access to the building while generating the necessary economics for the renovation and long-term viability of the project.” Further, the proposal “preserves the theater as a community resource” and “respects the neighborhood’s concerns about traffic by largely relying on current visitors to the site and [its] uses,” he added. 

The Bay Club’s proposal strives to maintain balance between public accessibility and revenue generation by creating public and private space. “There are some aspects of it that you can access for a membership fee, and there will be more access for the public without a fee,” she said. “Our club is very focused on wanting to provide hospitality, the idea of creating gathering spaces for families and friends,” Appel added.

Similarly, Raphaely said that The Arcadium’s proposal emphasizes the space as community-oriented and also offers a financially viable lease offer. “We’re thinking about service and healing. We’re thinking about total access to [myriad] neighborhoods and communities. We can make a really beautiful offer, but if it’s socially and economically stratified, then it misses both purpose and opportunity.”

Developers also were required to plan for parking and traffic in their proposals. Appel of the Bay Club said public transit will compensate for some potential traffic impacts. Alternatives to public transit were integrated into some site proposals.

There should be “a really strong transportation management plan that integrates public transit, the existing traffic that comes to the site, and the new uses,” Field said.

As the decision-making process regarding the future use of the Palace evolves, Raphaely said sponsors should think about whether the community’s needs are being honored and whether “a vision for that building [can] really bring together and coalesce the same spirit of forward movement to meet the unfolding future needs of San Francisco.”

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