Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development is expected to unveil plans for a “about 15-story” high-rise on the California Theater lot this summer. The facade and marquee of the building would remain. Photo credit: Nico Savidge, Berkeleyside

The potential new owner of the California Theater in downtown Berkeley wants to build a high-rise apartment building for student tenants on the site – while retaining the distinctive facade and neon tent of the movie palace.

Rhode Island-based Gilbane Development plans to present a proposal this summer that would involve demolishing most of the existing theater at 2115 Kittredge Street and building “about 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 Center’ that would occupy the ground floor of the building.

Plans cleared an early hurdle this month when Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to list the California Theater’s Art Deco-era facade and mid-century marquee as a historical monument, but chose to withhold that protection not to extend to the rest of the 109-year-old building.

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

Gilbane, which has built dormitories near college campuses across the country, has not yet finalized how many apartments it will include in the project a block from UC Berkeley. The company and the theater’s longtime owners have agreed on a sale to close once the project receives city approval, said Cerria, who declined to split the purchase price.

There are three buildings downtown that are at least 15 stories tall today, but that number could double in the near future as city leaders seek to encourage higher-density housing in core Berkeley. The California Theater project is one of three new downtown high-rise buildings proposed in the past nine months, joining a 17-story building planned for the intersection of Oxford Street and Center Street and the plan for a another developer for a 25-story tower at 2190 Shattuck Ave.

The theater has been closed since the early days of the pandemic, a temporary closure that became permanent last fall when owners refused to renew the lease of longtime operator Landmark Theaters.

Preservators and supporters of the theater had asked the Landmarks Commission to designate the entire building as a landmark and collected hundreds of signatures on an online petition calling on the city council to help organize efforts to restore California to its current state shape to help. The owners of the property argued that while the facade and the marquee were features worth protecting, elements such as the overall height of the building or the brick walls could not.

The commission sided with the property owners and agreed to a recommendation from the city council calling for the protection of the “characteristics of the property”. Members also noted that the commission does not have the authority to mark the interiors of privately owned buildings, meaning it could not preserve elements such as California’s main 500-seat auditorium.

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

“I’m disappointed, but as far as disappointment goes, there are worse scenarios than what has been presented,” Sophiea said.

“At least it’s going to be a cultural center,” he added, although he’s wary of a scenario where those plans fall through and the performing arts space never materializes.

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

The developer is working with a newly formed non-profit organization called the California Theater Consortium, led by Jennifer Boesing, director of the Youth Musical Theater Company, to develop plans for the space and bring together several organizations that could benefit. According to Boesing, 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 more about their needs. Many of these groups have been searching for permanent homes for years, she said.

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

“We are very hopeful that this could serve a tremendous number of people,” Boesing said.

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