A design proposal for the cinema school, courtesy of Leonardo Zylberberg

A structural engineering company with a series of Mission projects under its belt is making plans to create a cinema school inside the abandoned Tower Theater on Mission Street, and then donate the newly constructed school to the City College of San Francisco.

Rodrigo Santos, co-founder of Santos & Urrutia, says he is undertaking the roughly $12-14 million project purely out of a love for the neighborhood and an affinity for film. The school will boast a 200-seat movie theater for screenings as well as several classrooms, editing rooms, equipment rental for students and offices for instructors.

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” said Santos. “We’re going to be at the center of the action.”

Though Santos is contributing some of his savings toward the project, he expects to be doing significant fundraising to make the school a reality. But, if completed, the project will create a cutting-edge, high-quality cinema school from an ailing structure.

The Tower Theater, constructed originally in 1912, will remain in memory and in function, despite plans for a major overhaul and expansion. The nominal tower will be expanded to be twice as deep, and, to comply with planning rules, the building will still house a cinema for screenings. But current plans also feature an added front terrace, two floors of underground space, and a reinvention of the front facade. The iconic marquee will be restored and repaired, while the facade will be made more transparent in an effort to better engage passerby.

“It will be very public, very transparent from the street…It can have its own agenda.” said Leonardo Zylberberg, the project’s architect. Zylberberg also has a personal connection to film – his neice Julieta Zylberberg is a film actress in Argentina.

“To have a cinema school there that’s accessible to people that grew up in the Mission, people from all over the city, I think it gets away from the gentrification conversation and talks about being a real additive to the neighborhood and to the city,” said Todd David, the project director working on the cinema school, who previously worked on creating the Noe Valley Town Square.

Once construction is completed, City College of San Francisco will take over operation of the building, and tuition is expected to cover the cost of operating the school. City College will be responsible for maintaining the school – costs the project creators hope will be covered by tuition. That would require a significant increase in enrollment, from 400 students to roughly 2,000, in David’s estimation.

How the cinema school is envisioned at night. Image courtesy of Leonardo Zylberberg

“In my experience ppl always love…building things. It’s the maintaining of things that’s always the tricky part,” said David

The hope is that the new school will offer something that CCSF currently cannot – a cutting edge educational tool in a beloved modern medium.

“City College actually has a cinema school already. In the basement of the Ocean Avenue campus,” David said.

Santos said the choice to partner with the city college was influenced in part by his experience with community college graduates – in fact, his partner in the structural engineering company, Albert Urrutia, began his higher education at CCSF.

“The best instructors were at City College. They only had one role: Educating students,” Santos said.

City College was not able to provide a comment by press time.

Getting the approval of city college has been key in every step of the process. The designers have met several times with faculty and administration from the college to discuss the details, and adjusted their plans to tailor them to the college’s needs.

The next big hurdle is getting through the Planning Department. Santos & Urrutia is planning to submit its latest plans soon. Nonetheless, with such a large project, aspiring cinema students may have some time to wait yet – David estimated that at the earliest, the school could be in place in three or four years.

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  1. This article is missing a couple of fairly important elements: how the project pencils out for CCSF (not just for Santos), and how CCSF feels about it. Surely members of the Board of Trustees would have something to say.

  2. Tuition cannot cover this. No tuition money actually goes to CCSF. All tuition money from community colleges go to the general state fund, with the exception of international student tuition. Community colleges are funded through a formula based on full time equivalent students. CCSF’s funding will be greatly decreased when the Leno bill supporting CCSF’s ending runs out in 2017. How CCSF would support this new structure is a serious question, given that it cannot even maintain its current buildings. As a faculty department chair who is the co-chair of the facilities committee at CCSF, I can assure you that it will not be as simple as turning it over to CCSF.

  3. Sounds cool. I hope it picks up where the old Film Arts Foundation left off. Will it be 16mm, 35mm, all digital or what?

    1. Let me add that saving the old Tower sign is great. As with this and New Mission’s restored marquee, maybe someone will step up to save the Grand’s and El Capitan’s. It’s not too late.