Long Live the Kings

[Image: Jennifer Gardner]

In February of 2010, New York City announced that Brooklyn’s famous Lowe’s Kings Theatre on Flatbush Avenue in Flatbush-Ditmas Park would be renovated and restored. The project will completely restore the 3,195-seat theater, built in 1929 in the French Renaissance style popular at the time by the prestigious theater architecture firm Rapp & Rapp. Originally intended to show both live vaudeville performances and films, the “wonder theater” was a true movie palace—the flagship of the Loew’s theater enterprise and local and regional draw for moviegoers throughout New York City. The theater has been vacant since 1978, deteriorating under City ownership following its seizure of the building in lieu of back taxes. Now, in partnership with Houston-based theater developer and management firm ACE Theatrical Group, the city plans to restore and reopen the theater as a performing arts center by 2014. According to the City, ACE expects to present up to 250 productions and events each year, and the City estimates that the project will create 530 construction jobs as well as 50 permanent jobs, not including personnel for individual productions. At a cost of $70 million to the developer and the City, this is no minor project; in fact, the Kings Theatre will be the largest of its kind in Brooklyn, and the third largest theater in New York City.

[Image: Kings Theater, 1950s. Via www.historictheaters.org.]

[Image: Kings Theatre grand lobby, 2007. By Nicole Bengiveno, The New York Times]

The Kings Theatre is just one example of many such theater redevelopment and restoration projects either recently completed or currently underway across the US. Once a part of vibrant downtowns, theaters closed and buildings were abandoned as downtowns deteriorated or converted to smaller screens as the multiplex movie theater model took over. These theaters are often in newly redeveloped or redeveloping downtown areas in cities of all sizes, and are generally movie palaces built in the 1920s that tend to have the right building features and footprint to accommodate a number of seats conducive to performance-oriented programming. Building typologies aside, theater restorations are fantastic examples of the ways in which one size does not fit all in redevelopment projects.

The Boston Opera House Also renovated by the ACE Theatrical Group, the Boston Opera House occupies a 1928 theater built in memory of vaudeville impresario B.F. Keith, in contemporary Boston’s theater district. One of the most beautiful movie theaters in the Northeast, it was nonetheless bricked up and converted into a 2-screen cinema in the 1970s. The Boston Opera took possession of the building from 1979-1991, after which unpaid taxes and utility bills forced abandonment and deterioration. It was renovated beginning in 2002, with development funding and management by Clear Channel and Live Nation. Last year, two Boston businessmen purchased the theater, returning it to local ownership. Programming focuses on national, touring acts.

[Image: Fox Theater via www.insidefullerton.com]

Fox Theatre, Fullerton CA A well-known theater in the Los Angeles metro area showed its last movie in 1987, and is now under development by the Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation, a non-profit group that purchased the building for $3.5 million in 2004, using funds raised by volunteers. With a small, community-based non-profit heading development, progress is slow, and the volunteer staff continues to apply for state and local grants and loans. The facility is in partial use for special events.

[Image via Flickr]

Reseda Theater, Reseda CA As the proposed centerpiece for a planned downtown redevelopment on the strip immortalized by Tom Petty and Boogie Nights, renovation of the abandoned Reseda Theater was stalled during the economic downturn, an example of external economic forces at work. An initial plan involved a public-private partnership between the Reseda Community Redevelopment Agency and CIM Group, the theater management company responsible for LA’s Kodak Theater, with combined investments of almost $8 million. The theater itself is not considered historic, but the plan to redevelop the site calls for programming that speaks to changing area demographics and 21st century audiences.

[Image: The Hanover Theatre, via Flickr]

Hanover Theatre, Worchester MA Also formerly a Loew’s movie palace, the Hanover was designed by Thomas Lamb, architect of the Boston Opera House. In analyzing potential viability of the project, the city was apparently faced with an “if you build it, will they come?” question regarding the location. After a $26 million restoration, the 2,300-seat theater comes with a prediction of an annual economic impact of $40 million through direct and indirect spending, tax revenue and new jobs. The initial annual event schedule aimed to attract 170,000 patrons. The Hanover Theatre received a Presentation Honor Award from the National Trust this month.

Mahalia Jackson Theatre, New Orleans The Mahalia Jackson Theatre in New Orleans is a revival of a theater that is equal parts symbolic and economic. Built in the 1970s in Armstrong Park, adjacent to the historic Congo Square, the theater was severely damaged in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, music bookings in New Orleans are down 45%, the average wage is down 18% and the cost of living is up by 11%. Audiences are still scarce, and the challenges of resettling in the city combine to limit opportunity for musicians, who mostly fit into the category of working poor. The economic impact study commissioned by the city for the project demonstrated a need to create arts venues that are more business-friendly and supportive of musicians and club owners. Post-disaster restoration also provides a unique funding opportunity: public-private partnership includes promised reimbursement from FEMA to the tune of $9 million.

These projects are as diverse as the places where they are being carried out, but there are a few commonalities among them that can inform an understanding of key characteristics of theater redevelopment projects. First, they are funded through public-private partnership, often led by an NGO or non-profit organization. For such large-scale cultural development and investment, securing public funding and private expertise seems to be the ideal mix in order to achieve economic stability and viability of the project. Second, there is typically a major investment in the physical structure of the theater itself throughout the restoration process. Most such theaters have gone through extended periods of disuse and deterioration. Third, plans for redevelopment include a combination of cultural production and consumption facilities and programming. This can extend beyond the theater itself to include a surrounding cultural district. Fourth, performance, not films, forms the main focus of such projects. Finally, the theater renovation is often the centerpiece of a larger plan for neighborhood or commercial district redevelopment.

Non-profit arts and cultural organizations are major contributors to the business community, and local and regional economies. As employers, producers and consumers, arts organizations create jobs, contracts and revenue for local and state governments. There is a substantial return on investment in the arts. A study of the Philadelphia non-profit arts and cultural sector by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance found that each $1 invested from local governments returns $5 in local tax revenue, while each $1 from state government returns $2.50 in state tax revenue. Additional benefits come from direct and indirect spending at the venue and surrounding areas, job creation and wage increases, and so on. But the benefits of arts-oriented development are “often not easily captured just in the number of jobs or visitor spending. There is a broad recognition that these projects have benefits for the rest of the city in terms of image and quality of life” (Preiss Philips Shapiro Associates, BAM LDC Impact Analysis, 2004).

Because of the scope of a large cultural redevelopment project, as well as the fact that such projects are typically funded at least in part by local government capital and tax credits, an economic impact analysis of a theater restoration project necessarily covers multiple types of impact at multiple levels of geography. For example, impact on regional development is generally estimated through a systematic analysis that accounts for interindustry relationships within a region, with results given by order-of-magnitude approximations. Analysis of the project’s operational impact includes assessing the final demand, that is, the anticipated spending as a result of the completed project, including increases in economic output such as job creation as well as ancillary impacts like the effect of increased or changing spending on the immediate area. Government revenue is also crucial; return on governmental investment is measured in real estate and property taxes, income taxes on new wages, and sales taxes on new spending among other revenue sources. Last but definitely not least in the case of arts and culture development, the qualitative impacts are given via interviews, surveys and studies done with/by arts groups, merchants and residents, and can reveal the unquantifiable impacts and potential benefits to quality of life or city image.

The finite resources available within a city or region for spending on cultural activities may mean that positive local impacts generated by a new theater project my represent a negative regional impact. But there is also the possibility of generating an increase in overall cultural production and consumption where populations are underserved and the region can support such growth.

As a focal point for entertainment in the former lives of American downtowns, the renovation and reuse of these theaters, where the market can support them, is an obvious point of departure for creation of revitalized downtowns with need for entertainment venues. Purpose-built and often architecturally significant, the large movie palaces and other similarly-sized venues are ideally suited to serve their original function after renovation, while many smaller theaters have been converted to retail, church or nightlife uses. Made possible through innovative public-private partnerships, non-profit arts organizations and local development corporations, these theater renovation projects can create significant positive economic impact in measurable and immeasurable ways. While the number crunching involved in creating a comprehensive economic impact analysis of a major arts and culture project can approximate a project’s fiscal success, in the arts and culture sector, the intangible results may be equally significant. Many cities view a redeveloped theater as a major new anchor and as an enhancement to a place’s quality of life. Furthermore, a theater redevelopment project forces discussion of questions on culture—whose culture? While often fueled in part by nostalgia, the development pressure behind these restoration projects is necessarily coupled with the recognition that new audiences will contain different demographics that demand different programming than the original theaters in their heyday.

One Response to “Long Live the Kings”

  1. Brad January 26, 2012 at 6:26 PM #

    i for one am glad to see these works of art being brought back into the public eye… i remember going to a theater that was built in this 1920/30′d when theaters had style and remember the feeling of magic in the air i don’t remember the movie i saw but i remember the theater

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