Old movie theaters are hoping for a Hollywood ending

By Stuart Miller

Tragedy has held sway over comedy at the Metro, a beautiful, old, art deco movie house on the Upper West Side. The building, adorned with a glazed medallion of the Greek dramatic symbols, has sat empty on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets since 2006. In its heyday it showed Marx Brothers comedies and romances starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. At a low point in the 1970s, it became an adult-film theater. But for most of its 85 years, it has screened first-run, independent and foreign films. Down and even out for a time, it was never dark for this long.

In the past dozen years, plans have been announced, then abandoned, for the theater at 2626 Broadway to become an Urban Outfitters, the headquarters for an arts nonprofit, an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater, a Blink Fitness and, most recently, a Planet Fitness. The lack of follow-through has frustrated community leaders and infuriated residents who miss the movie theater and accuse the owner of being greedy and unreliable. Now, however, the Metro is once again on the verge of reclamation. Albert Bialek, who bought the theater in 1989, said he is close to signing a deal with a nonprofit to take over the partially landmarked building.

"It's just sad seeing the Metro slowly deteriorating when it could have an enormous impact on the neighborhood," said Gary Bornstein, founder of Wingspan Arts, the nonprofit that had a handshake deal to take over the theater in 2012.

In a city with 8.6 million residents packed within 303 square miles, aging movie theaters have become a preservation battleground that often pits developers looking to make a profit against elected officials eager to maintain quality of life and residents seeking communal and cultural gathering spaces. After notable failures in recent years such as the American Theater in the Bronx, which is now a Marshalls, and successes such as the Kings Theatre in Flatbush, now a live-performance venue, communities are hoping to find a road map for success with long-empty theaters such as the Metro, RKO Keith in Flushing and the Hamilton in Harlem, among several others.

"There's a desperate need for any space geared toward the community—something for young people and seniors," said Assemblyman Ron Kim, who is eyeing the RKO Keith in his Queens district. Demolition and plans for a large glass condo tower have apparently stalled, and Kim hopes a coming downturn in the Flushing condo market could give the site new life. "There's no place to meet and interact." 

Fairytale beginning

Once upon a time New York City did not have multiplexes—it had movie palaces, dazzling buildings that screened movies, hosted vaudeville and became social anchors for their communities. The first was the Regent, built in 1913 by Thomas Lamb at 116th Street and what is now Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. (Today it is home to the First Corinthian Baptist Church.) Nearly every neighborhood soon had its own palace with an average of 1,800 seats and lavish decorations.

But the rise of television in the 1950s, New York's fiscal crisis in the 1970s and the crime surge in the crack era all played a role in the decline of these movie theaters. Then the subsequent real estate boom made the land beneath them increasingly valuable. Large-screen home entertainment centers and movie streaming on smartphones didn't help. Coupled with the high cost of modernizing theaters for digital projection, the economics of these old picture houses simply didn't work anymore.

More than two dozen movie palaces built between 1910 and 1932 have been closed or razed. Of those still standing, some were transformed into retail stores or gyms; others were reimagined. Frequently they became churches. Even the Ziegfeld Theatre, one of the last single-screen theaters in the country when it opened in 1969, closed in 2016 after converting to digital projection. It is now Ziegfeld Ballroom, an event space.

The movie houses that remain pose challenges to communities and developers alike. While nostalgic locals campaign to turn the projection lights back on, that's typically not a realistic solution.

But their closure can leave cultural holes. When the American Theater in Parkchester closed in 2013, it left the 1.4 million residents of the Bronx with just two movie theaters. The site was converted into a Marshalls, which rankled community members who argued that another discount store was low among the neighborhood's priorities.

The same objections are being made by Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez about the Coliseum at West 181st Street in Washington Heights. The 1920s building, dark since 2011, failed to get protection from the city's Historic Monuments Preservation Committee and is expected to be razed. A proposed shopping mall may replace it.

Washington Heights has about 150,000 residents and no movie theaters. Rodriguez objects to the planned glassed-in mall and the lack of communication from the developer, BLDG. The building remains vacant, years after talk of its demolition.

"We don't need more Marshalls and Targets," Rodriguez said. "They [BLDG] did not respond to or reach out to the community board, the BID or our office to discuss their plans. This is not the best way to enter a community. They need to be responsible to their investors but also to the community. They are not respecting us."

BLDG did not return calls seeking comment.

"Some people are so stuck on short-term profits and turnaround, but not every developer is like that," Kim said. He hopes he can broker a happy ending for the RKO Keith. "I would connect developers to city and state agencies to help provide subsidies and incentives."

Indeed, politicians have demonstrated an enormous willingness to find money to give the public access to these sites.

"We have to be more creative, with the goal of finding cultural uses with community purposes," said Councilman Mark Levine, who represents the Upper West Side neighborhood where the Metro is situated.

The plot turns

The Loews Kings Theatre in Flatbush, which closed in 1977 and sat empty for decades, was once an example of theater blight. Now it is a shining beacon for turnaround. The city, which owned it, partnered with a private developer on a $95 million renovation. The glittering, ornate palace reopened in 2015 as a live-performance space.

Along the way, it has helped revive the neighborhood—a new gym and hotel recently opened nearby, providing jobs. "It has raised the visibility of the neighborhood and expanded people's knowledge of Brooklyn," said Tyler Bates, the venue's general manager. Since taking the job in 2017, Bates has increased bookings by 50%.

"You need to have places for people to gather and share experiences, to celebrate music or culture in a positive environment, whether it's a movie theater or something else," Bates said. "Otherwise you are doing the people of a community a disservice."

Even developers of some privately owned former theaters agree.

Craig Livingston, managing partner at Exact Capital, is trying to give the Victoria Theater in Harlem a new life for investors and residents.

This architectural gem, just 160 feet down the street from the Apollo Theater, will retain its historic facade and lobby; the $178 million redevelopment rising above it will include a 25-story apartment building and a 26-story hotel and retail space set to open late next year.

Two theaters will be built on the lower levels and operated by the Apollo Theater Foundation, which will work with other groups, such as the Harlem Arts Council, Jazz Mobile and the Classic Theater of Harlem.

"Success for us is a project that is profitable but is also welcomed by the community," Livingston said. "You need to do things in balance and find something that makes sense in today's reality."

Revival has come to the western corner of Prospect Park too. The Park Slope Pavilion was a much-used but much-loathed institution. It was poorly maintained and known for broken seats and toilets, sticky floors, bugs and rodents. But when it closed in 2016, it left a void in the community.

Owner Hidrock Properties drew howls of outrage for its initial plans to redevelop the theater and its adjacent property into condos and retail space. City Councilman Brad Lander helped persuade the developer to at least maintain a movie theater on the site. But in the face of a softening luxury condo market, Hidrock elected to sell.

The developer fetched $28 million for just the theater—a handsome profit on the combined $16 million Hidrock spent on the two lots—when it sold to a group of private investors assembled by Matthew Viragh. In the deal, Viragh, who owns Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema, received a friendly lease and will reopen next month as the 650-seat Nitehawk Prospect Park.

"We are keeping it as an independent, locally owned movie theater," Viragh said. "It's about dollars and rent and being lucky to have a supportive landlord, but we also have a different type of theater that generates more revenue."

The Nitehawk in Park Slope, like its Williamsburg counterpart, will serve upscale food and drinks at patrons' seats. It also will cater to families with children-friendly programming.

Viragh planned a $10 million renovation, but he said it went "at least 20% over budget" once his workers "started peeling back layers of carpet and muddy drywall."

"The state of disrepair in the theater suggested almost proactive neglect," Viragh said. His workers uncovered marble stairs, brick and plaster work that he has spent extra to restore, he added.

Meanwhile, residents on the Upper West Side are tempering their hope as Bialek, the Metro's owner, once again says he is nearing a deal.

"For the last 12 years, it has sat like a festering wound," local activist Debbie Rosenberg said.

Levine said he's advocated for an arts-oriented use and offered to help Bialek on land-use issues, but he's been rebuffed.

"The Metro is in private hands, and that leaves us with limited tools," Levine said. "His goal has been to maximize rent; I have other goals."

Bialek blames zoning changes and other issues for the one-step-forward, three-steps-back pattern of progress. But now he is waiting for just the nonprofit suitor's board to vote by month's end on approving the costs of a capital campaign.

He has a "high degree of confidence" that the project will move forward. The organization, which would either buy the building or sign a long-term lease with an option to buy, plans for a mix of programming for seniors and others, along with at least one state-of-the-art, off-Broadway theater.

"This would have a tremendous impact on business around here," Bialek said. "It will bring vitality and life to the street. It can be the new face of the neighborhood."

Levine said the impact of a community arts organization striking a deal could extend beyond the Upper West Side, potentially providing a road map for other sites, such as the Hamilton, at West 146th Street and Broadway, and the Coliseum.

"If it works," he said, "I see hope for the others."

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