After Poo-Pooh From Planning, Neighbors Voice Support For Teatro ZinZanni Tent

For years, Teatro ZinZanni—the circus dinner theater that resided at Pier 29 from 2000 to 2011—has been laying the groundwork for a return to the Embarcadero, getting buy-in from neighborhood groups, residents and businesses along the way. But now, it appears SF Planning isn’t eager to see the show go on—at least not if ZinZanni’s iconic tent is involved.

At Pier 29, ZinZanni performed in a historic spiegeltent known as the “Palais Nostalgique.” Constructed in 1910, it’s one of only a few from the era that remains in near-perfect condition, complete with crystal, mirrors, and stained glass. (It only survived World War II by being buried underground.) Current plans call for the tent to be reinstalled at the new location, inside of a glass gazebo that would protect it from the elements.

But as Planning writes in its preliminary project assessment (PPA), released on March 15th: “The tent structure is unusual for the district and, while we acknowledge its uniqueness as a cultural artifact, may itself need to reflect greater compatibility with the district or be housed in a structure that reflects that compatibility.”

Shedding the historic spiegeltent would be an enormous blow to ZinZanni. “I think we have to go through the process here,” said chief operating officer Annie Jamison. “We absolutely need the tent. It’s paramount to our theatrical style. We’re hopeful that we’re going to be able to work this out.”

Rendering: Hornberger + Worstell Architects

Teatro ZinZanni, which also has a theater in Seattle, was asked to leave Pier 29 when the Port of San Francisco decided to host the America’s Cup and subsequently build the James R. Herman Cruise Terminal at Pier 27. In exchange, the city promised it a new venue along the waterfront, and ZinZanni’s plan was to re-open in San Francisco in 2018.

The project that includes ZinZanni is slated to go up on what’s now a parking lot on Seawall Lots 323 and 324, bordered by the Embarcadero, Broadway, and Davis and Vallejo streets. Current plans call for a 40-foot, four-story hotel with 180 to 200 hotel rooms and a 25,000 square-foot theatre, as well as 7,500 square feet of open space. The centerpiece would be a glass gazebo enclosing the spiegeltent, with a transparent wall for a peek into the backstage goings-on.

The developers did exhaustive outreach to get approval to build the theater, hotel and park. They attended scores of community meetings, got piles of letters of support, and had dozens of people show up in support of a sole-source waiver from the Board of Supervisors. Now they must respond to Planning’s concerns about the tent and the closure of Vallejo Street, which also includes other fine-tuning on bulb-outs and streetscaping.

From Davis and Broadway, looking east at the site. (Photo: SF Planning)

We asked Jamison if ZinZanni was caught off guard by Planning’s comments on the tent. “It was surprising, considering it’s always been a part of who we are,” she said of the tent. “And our customers love it. It transforms them. It’s a completely transformative experience to walk into it.”

In all of its dealings with the community and city agencies so far, ZinZanni hasn’t seen any negative reaction to the tent. “We’ve never had any comment or question about the idea of bringing the tent back,” Jamison told us. “It’s just always been part of the plan. The tent is part of who we are. It helps create the magic of ZinZanni, in combination with our unique style.”

“We understand that the Planning staff would like us to come back and work with them and talk with them about the rationale for the tent and the glass gazebo,” said Jay Wallace, of Teatro ZinZanni’s partner hotel developer, Kenwood Investments. “We strongly believe it is a great cultural icon along the waterfront, and we hope it would be supported by the planning staff going forward.”

The tent isn’t the only issue, as Planning also has concerns about closing Vallejo. According to the document, “the Planning Department is challenged to support the vacation of the Vallejo right-of-way in the manner currently proposed, because the proposed Circus Tent will block views to the Embarcadero and impede physical connections to the waterfront.”

Planning’s suggested alternatives include putting the theater “on the parcel to the north—outside the public right of way—connected via a promenade, or even possibly a covered walkway.”

View from Battery & Vallejo. (Image: Courtesy of Hornberger + Worstell)

We reached out to a few community representatives, who said they were taken aback by Planning’s negative reaction to the tent. “My reaction on the Planning Department’s reported preliminary response to the tent is that not every structure in a neighborhood needs to conform to the surrounding buildings,” said Bill Hannan, president of the Golden Gateway Tenants Association, via email. “The location at Broadway and the Embarcadero is a visual focal point, a good spot for something distinctive that would serve as an architectural exclamation mark.”

Rendering showing the potential color scheme. (Image: Courtesy of Hornberger + Worstell)

“The tent is an essential part of the exterior design that lends the project cultural authenticity,” said Jane Connors, senior project manager for the Ferry Building Marketplace and a member of the Port’s Northeast Waterfront Advisory Group(NEWAG) for the Port, via email. “Not only does Teatro ZinZanni have a history in SF, [but] the historic Spiegeltent harkens to the days of the Barbary Coast. Many of us saw the potential of the tent being like the carousel in [New York’s] Brooklyn Bridge Park—a historic artifact housed in modern architecture.”

“I don’t see how you can have Teatro ZinZanni, as we know it, without the tent,” wrote Carol Parlette, another NEWAG member who’s also on the board of the Barbary Coast Neighborhood Association. (She gave comments as an individual, and not on behalf of either group.) “Do we want Teatro ZinZanni? If we do, then don’t put them into a hotel ballroom. I also think the supposed Vallejo view corridor is not much of an issue. How many people a day are standing there looking toward the Embarcadero?”

“That being said, I still want to see more renderings as we go along. It’s a hugely important corner, and it needs to be done right.”

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