Proposal for California Theatre would keep facade, add high-rise housing

A proposal to build “approximately 15 stories” of new housing behind the theater’s facade cleared an early hurdle this month.

Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development is expected to submit plans this summer for a high-rise with “approximately 15 stories” of housing at the site of the California Theatre. The building’s facade and marquee would be preserved. Credit: Nico Savidge

The prospective new owner of downtown Berkeley’s California Theatre wants to construct a high-rise apartment building catering to student renters at the site — while retaining the movie palace’s distinctive facade and neon marquee.

Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development plans to submit a proposal this summer that calls for demolishing most of the existing theater at 2115 Kittredge St. and building “approximately 15 stories” of new housing behind the facade, Development Director Christian Cerria said in an interview. Gilbane is also working with a coalition of local performing arts groups to develop a plan for a new 300-seat theater and “creative arts hub” that would occupy the building’s ground floor.

The plans cleared an early hurdle this month, when Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to landmark the California Theatre’s Art Deco-era facade and mid-century marquee, but elected not to extend those protections to the rest of the 109-year-old building.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to breathe new life into the California Theatre,” Cerria said, adding that the project would “restore its majestic front facade and marquee to its former glory through thoughtful construction of a new dynamic building.”

Gilbane, which has built student-centric-apartment buildings near college campuses across the country, has not yet determined how many apartments it wants to include in the project a block from UC Berkeley. The company and the theater’s longtime owners have reached an agreement on a sale that is set to close once the project receives city approval, said Cerria, who declined to share the purchase price.

Downtown has three buildings that are at least 15 stories tall today, but that number could double in the near future as city leaders look to encourage more dense housing construction in Berkeley’s core. The California Theatre project is one of three new downtown high-rises proposed over the past nine months, joining a 17-story building pitched for the intersection of Oxford and Center streets, and another developer’s plan for a 25-story tower at 2190 Shattuck Ave.

The theater has been shuttered since the early days of the pandemic, a temporary closure that became permanent last fall when longtime operator Landmark Theatres said the building’s owners declined to renew its lease. Mark Rhoades, whose firm Rhoades Planning Group is working with Gilbane, the theater’s current owners and performing arts groups to advance the new development, said Landmark canceled its lease.

Preservationists and devotees of the theater had asked the landmarks commission to declare the entire building a landmark, and garnered hundreds of signatures for an online petition calling on the City Council to help organize an effort to restore the California in its current form. The property’s owners contended that while the facade and marquee are distinctive features worthy of protection, the same can’t be said for elements like the building’s overall height or brick sides.

The commission sided with the property owners, agreeing with a city staff recommendation that called for protecting the “character-defining features of the property.” Members also noted the commission does not have the authority to landmark the interior features of privately owned buildings, meaning it could not order elements such as the California’s 500-seat main auditorium preserved.

Dale Sophiea, a former theater manager who helped organize the preservation campaign, said that while he hoped the entire building could be protected, he was heartened to see that the proposed project includes space for the performing arts.

“I’m disappointed, but as far as the disappointment goes, there are worse scenarios than the one that was presented,” Sophiea said.

“At least it will be a cultural center,” he added, though he is wary of a scenario in which those plans fall through and the performing arts space never becomes a reality.

Cerria acknowledged that including a theater adds “unique challenges” to the project, but said Gilbane is “very committed” to it.

The developer is working with a newly formed nonprofit called the California Theater Consortium, led by Youth Musical Theater Company Director Jennifer Boesing, to develop plans for the space and bring together several organizations that could benefit from it. Boesing said the consortium is in talks with about a dozen local arts groups — including Berkeley Ballet, Berkeley Symphony, Destiny Arts and Youth Musical Theater Company — to learn about their needs. Many of those groups have been searching for a permanent home for years, she said.

Boesing and Cerria said they hope the California Theatre project can one day include space for dance, music and live theater performances, as well as film screenings.

“We feel really hopeful that this could serve an enormous amount of people,” Boesing said.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.