Opinion: Saving the California Theatre

The building has a handsome art deco facade, but if only the facade is kept, an irreplaceable resource of public exhibition space will be lost.

When I say I want to save the California Theatre as a theatre, it doesn’t mean I am anti-housing. Rather, I am concerned about the quality of life for those who live here. The things that make Berkeley a great place to live are its density and diversity, which support a broad range of commercial and cultural enterprises.

Berkeley is justifiably proud of its arts district and movie theatres have long been a key element of its cultural mix. But the number of movie screens is rapidly decreasing, especially if the Shattuck Cinemas are removed for a new housing development. 

Frankly, I am skeptical of predictions of the “death” of movies — something that has been said at least since the invention of television and repeated with each new technology for home viewing. Exciting films continue to be made, especially recently, as the industry becomes more open to diverse voices, including our own local talents like Ryan Coogler, Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Julie Rubio and many others.

The Black Panther. The Great Gatsby. Beasts of the Southern Wild. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Twelve Rings. And (just in the last week!) Everything Everywhere All at Once. That’s my shortlist of memorable, amazing works of cinematic art that I’ve seen in Berkeley in the last few years. You probably have your own. People seek experiences that are emotionally authentic and immersive, and that doesn’t change just because we can also screen dramas on our couches.

We have been, and are still, in a period of pandemic anomaly. I remember evenings in downtown Berkeley three years ago when the sidewalks were thronged, and people were lined up to see movies. That’s not the case right now, but wouldn’t it be shortsighted to make permanent changes to our downtown infrastructure based on conditions of the moment? Don’t we want accessible, affordable entertainment in Berkeley’s downtown transit hub — rather than having people buy their tickets, meals, snacks and drinks in neighboring cities?

I urge our city council and the owners of the California Theatre to seek buyers and partnerships who will keep this theater open as a theater. Yes, the building has a handsome art deco facade, but if only the facade is kept, an irreplaceable resource of public exhibition space will be lost.

For all its NIMBY reputation, Berkeley is a densely populated town. Almost every neighborhood has a mix of single-family homes, duplexes and quadruplexes, apartments and ADUs. This density allows it to have more urban features than places of comparable size, and appropriate further housing development should continue to enhance this community. 

But if we allow too many varied building types, including cultural and commercial spaces, to be turned into housing — if we only build bedrooms — we could end up with a bedroom community instead of a vibrant city. 

Alice Jurow is the secretary of the Art Deco Society of California.