The San Francisco Art Institute is in talks to move its graduate school to Fort Mason Center. It’s part of an effort to reinvigorate and raise the profile of the 35-year-old cultural campus that gets more than 1 million visitors a year yet remains an enigma to many Bay Area residents.
The 143-year-old fine arts school would build out galleries, classrooms and studios in the Herbst Pavilion, a historic warehouse that occupies the middle of three piers at Fort Mason. The project would cost $17 million and come after the center already spent $21 million on renovating the 35,000-square-foot structure, which also houses the 437-seat Cowell Theater.
San Francisco Art Institute President Charles Desmarais said the school is hammering out lease details with Fort Mason. “We are hoping to have all our ducks in a row and announce a plan in May,” Desmarais said.
Rich Hillis, executive director of the Fort Mason Center, said the addition of hundreds of Art Institute students would strengthen a 13-acre complex that is already home to the City College of San Francisco arts campus, as well the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artists Gallery, the Blue Bear School of Music, the Long Now Museum and Gallery, Greens Restaurant, Readers Bookstore, the Magic Theatre, the Cowell Theater, the Museo Italo Americano, the Mexican Museum, BATS Improv and other groups.
“The Art Institute would be a great anchor,” Hillis said.
Multitude of uses
Fort Mason, between Aquatic Park and the Marina, opened in 1911 to support construction of the western portion of the Panama Canal. During World War II, more than 1.5 million troops and 23.5 million tons of cargo passed through its piers. The fort was phased out in the 1950s and sat mostly vacant until plans to create a cultural center on the site took shape in the 1970s as many cities grappled with what to do with mothballed military sites. An upper area of Fort Mason, site of the original coastal fortifications, is now housing.
When it opened in 1977, the Fort Mason Center was hot. The Dalai Lama visited. Sam Shepard and Michael McClure began their careers at the Magic Theatre. Robin Williams, Danny Glover, Boz Scaggs and Spalding Gray appeared at the Cowell Theater. In 1979, the Zen Center opened Greens, one of the first gourmet vegetarian restaurants in the country.
In some sense, the tenants at Fort Mason have remained strong over the past 35 years. The center has five theaters. Three of the groups there — BATS Improv, Blue Bear Music School and Magic Theater — have all added space in the past year. The Long Now Foundation, started by computer pioneer Daniel Hillis and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, recently opened a cafe and bar. Events on the two piers — craft fairs, food and beer festivals, and fundraisers — attract hundreds of thousands of people a year.
The ability of tenants to remain and grow is directly attributable to the fact that rents at Fort Mason are inexpensive — on average $13 a square foot, less than 50 percent of current market rates. Each year, the difference between rents charged and market rates exceeds $1.4 million. In contrast, rents at the nearby Presidio — also a former army base — range from $30 to $45 a square foot. While the Presidio has some environmentally focused nonprofits, it is also home to hedge funds and wealth advisers.
“I don’t think any of the nonprofits out here would exist without subsidies,” said Steve Savage, founder of the Blue Bear Music School, which has grown from 70 to 800 students. “Community-based arts organizations and San Francisco real estate is not a formula that works.”
At the same time, Fort Mason Center has never been very interested in marketing. As long as the arts tenants were happy, the center’s small staff was happy.
But now that is starting to change. Hillis, who took over in 2011, is hoping to elevate the center’s reputation so that it will be a destination in itself, a place where people will come for a specific play or concert but stay to sample a wider array of cultural attractions.
“I have often thought the whole was less than the sum of its parts at Fort Mason, and that is what I am seeing change,” said Kary Schulman of Grants for the Arts, which provides city funding to arts organizations. “I am seeing a more cohesive and integrated approach to the property.”
And a higher profile will be helpful over the next decade as the center works to raise money for the $90 million of capital improvements needed for the piers and buildings. Fort Mason generates about $1 million in surplus every year, all of which goes back into the property.
“Our big challenge is to generate money to fix the buildings, but it’s not going to be on the back of the Magic Theatre,” Hillis said. “It makes sense to keep rents reasonable so they can survive and worry about producing shows and not worry about where they are going to be.”
The Fort Mason plan comes at a time when nonprofit arts groups — as well as galleries and art supply stores — are getting squeezed out by rising rents and new developments. In addition to the art school, Fort Mason is talking to the arts supply store Flax about opening a store there. Flax occupies a building at Market and Valencia streets that is to be replaced with housing.
“It’s a problem nationally as we see cities growing at an unprecedented rate,” said Tom DeCaigny, cultural affairs director for the City Arts Commission. “They are having the same issues in Miami and Philly, Seattle and L.A.”
Fort Mason has also talked to several galleries facing rising rents in Union Square and has held preliminary discussions with the Cartoon Art Museum, which has several years left on its lease but is on a stretch of Mission Street quickly becoming one of the most desirable locations in the city for tech companies.
‘The land is going away’
Even in a city with some of the most valuable real estate in the world, Fort Mason is exceptionally picturesque. For Greens Executive Chef Annie Somerville, the view never gets old.
“You are in the city, but also on the edge of the city,” she said. “It’s quiet. The air is fresh. The huge ships and sailboats pass by. Seals haul out onto the dock beneath our windows.”
If a site like Fort Mason came available today, it’s probable that economic interests would trump the arts.
“The reality is, the land is going away,” said Nick Kinsey, director of external affairs for Fort Mason Center. “There is never going to be an opportunity to do something like this again.”
J.K. Dineen is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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