ZinZanni theater wants to put tent down near S.F Waterfront

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 5.17.35 PMOctober 11, 2014 – Three years after it was ousted from Piers 27-29 to make way for a new cruise ship terminal, Teatro ZinZanni is jumping back into the spotlight with a plan to build a permanent home and hotel on a parking lot where Broadway meets the Embarcadero.

Details are still being hammered out, but Teatro ZinZanni envisions its signature red velvet and gold brocade spiegeltent enclosed in a gazebo with floor-to-ceiling glass stretching along the Embarcadero, said Norm Langill, ZinZanni president and artistic director. “When you’re walking by on the Embarcadero you would be able to see the tent and the activity backstage.”

The nonprofit theater would be part of a mixed-use development with a 175-room hotel and a small park. The hotel will make the project easier to finance, Langill said. ZinZanni is working with developer Kenwood Investments on the plan.

“If you are going to build a theater nowadays, and you want to do it right and make it permanent, you have to make it a multiuse facility,” Langill said. “It’s the only way to make it work.”

ZinZanni opened its spiegeltent on Piers 27-29 in March 2000 and quickly began drawing sellout crowds with its mix of acrobatics, comedy, original music and audience participation, all served up with dinner. But six years into its tenure it became clear that the theater would have to move: In 2007 the Port of San Francisco had identified Piers 27-29 as the best place to put a cruise ship terminal. By December 2010 the city finalized a plan to use the piers first for a temporary America’s Cup village and then for the permanent cruise terminal.

ZinZanni held its last performance on New Year’s Eve 2011. By then the theater and the port had identified Seawall Lot 324, at Broadway and the Embarcadero, as a potential relocation site. From 2011 to 2013, ZinZanni and its design team worked to come up with a venue similar to what it once had across the Embarcadero: the spiegeltent and a collection of modular buildings for back-of-the-house support.

Hard to finance

But as the plans developed, it became clear that the project would be hard to finance and the neighborhood was not thrilled with how the complex would fit into the surrounding Northeast Waterfront Historic District.

“Teatro ZinZanni has been a good commercial tenant of the port and was very earnest about solving the problem,” said Jonathan Stern, the port’s assistant deputy director of planning. “Despite the good guidance of the neighborhood and their design team, we have not been able to make it work.”

For the new, more far-reaching plan, ZinZanni and Kenwood are seeking a “sole source” agreement with the Port Commission, which would allow the port to negotiate a deal for the land without going through a broader request for proposals from other parties.

“There are times when a sole source process is appropriate, and we believe this is one of those special circumstances,” said Kenwood Investments Chief Executive Officer Darius Anderson, who worked on the original deal that brought the Seattle-based theater to San Francisco 15 years ago. “For us, speed is very important. We want to keep the theater in San Francisco, but Norm has other options around the country. Unless we are able to move quickly, we may lose them.”

ZinZanni and Kenwood will present preliminary plans to the Port Commission on Tuesday.

Other seawall proposals

The ZinZanni project is not the first proposed for Seawall Lot 324, a 46,000-square-foot parcel that generates $1 million a year for the port from parking. In 2005 the Board of Supervisors shot down a plan to build a 65-foot-high hotel on the site. That proposal stirred up strong neighborhood opposition, especially from the Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood group, mostly because it exceeded the site’s height limits. This time the proposed hotel would be four stories — consistent with the current 40-foot zoning.

The project is being designed by hotel specialist Hornberger + Worstell, which also did the 2005 hotel proposal on the site. Anderson said the “whimsical cirque-meets-cabaret aesthetic that Teatro ZinZanni’’ is known for would be carried over into the hotel’s design.

Jon Golinger, a past president of Telegraph Hill Dwellers who has led campaigns to defeat several waterfront projects, including the condominium project at 8 Washington St., said so far residents in the famously antidevelopment neighborhood seem positive about the ZinZanni proposal. He said an entertainment use would generate foot traffic along the waterfront at night, something that is sorely needed.

“Keeping (ZinZanni) on the waterfront, at that location, is getting a thumbs-up from everyone I know,” he said. “There is universal excitement about the teatro not giving up on this.”

Perhaps that excitement is universal.

Former Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who down-zoned the property to 40 feet when he was on the board, said he doesn’t have a problem with the theater and hotel project, but questions the wisdom of the sole source contract, which the Board of Supervisors must approve. Frederick Allardyce, an agent with Sotheby’s realty who lives nearby, agreed, contending that the property should be put out to bid and given to the most qualified bidder.

“That is one of the most valuable locations on the waterfront,” Allardyce said.

In addition to tourists and theatergoers, the project would provide discounted lodging for ZinZanni’s troupe of international acrobats, actors, comedians and musicians. “Apartments in San Francisco are difficult to come by and costly,” Anderson said. “Carving out a number of rooms dedicated to ZinZanni performers will make it easier to recruit folks to come be a part of the show.”

Plans for housing

The ZinZanni project is not the only development planned for port-owned land on lower Broadway. The port is working with city housing officials to craft a plan for an affordable-housing development at Seawall Lot 322, just west of the theater site. The combination of a busy theater, hotel and 110-unit housing development could revive a forgotten stretch of lower Broadway.

The most recent new full-service hotel north of Market Street opened in 2002 when an office building on California Street was converted into the San Francisco Omni, according to hotel consultant Rick Swig. A hotel on Broadway and Embarcadero would serve the Jackson Square business community, as well as companies on the northern waterfront, like Levi Strauss & Co. and Williams-Sonoma.

“I think it would be a viable location for corporate travelers, and on weekends it would be a slam dunk,” Swig said.

He said the ability to attract ZinZanni theatergoers would be a benefit to the hotel, but not a deal breaker. “Will (ZinZanni) be a primary demand source? No. Will it help fill it up on weekends? Yes. Everything helps.”

Meanwhile, ZinZanni’s spiegeltent is “wintering” in a warehouse in south Seattle, Langill said. The tent is 32 feet tall, 66 feet wide, and made of 3,000 pieces. “We are eager for its return to San Francisco,” he said.

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