By Chris Teale (File photo)
The ongoing saga of the future of the Old Town Theater has taken another twist. Prospective new owner Jeff Yates appears to have pulled out of acquiring the historic property at 815 1/2 King St., which may now become a retail space.
The building’s current owner, Rob Kaufman of PMA Properties, originally filed an application for a special use permit last October to increase the theater’s maximum allowable floor area ratio from 1.5 to 2.0. The proposal would have allowed Kaufman to extend the second-floor balconies so they met in the middle, but it was put on hold in February by city council as Kaufman continued to look for buyers.
Yates appeared to be the one who finally would breathe new life into the century-old entertainment venue, as he applied in an SUP of his own in April to take on ownership. At the time, he expressed his desire for it to be an entertainment venue once more. But at city council’s public hearing on June 13, Kaufman was back with his original application, which had been on hold since the planning commission approved it unanimously in February.
City councilors noted their disappointment that the deal with Yates had fallen through, and approved Kaufman’s proposal 5-1, with City Councilor John Chapman the lone dissenting vote and Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg having recused herself due to Kaufman’s donation of $100 to her mayoral campaign.
Under the plan, the theater’s balcony will be extended to create a full second story in what are purely internal changes to the property, with no alterations to the facade. It means that the total space in the theater will be expanded by approximately 750 square feet, bringing the total up to approximately 7,965, according to a report by city staff.
In addition, the first floor’s auditorium seats and stage would be removed, while the slanted floor of the auditorium would be flattened. This aspect of the construction project would make way for more leasable commercial space at ground level.
In their unanimous approval of the proposal in February, the planning commission raised concerns about the preservation of the historic nature of the structure, which first began operation in 1914 as the Richmond Theater. They recommended four conditions that are geared to protect to the greatest degree possible the historic or character-defining elements of the building. Those conditions included the tile lobby floor, marquee and outdoor signage being retained in their existing locations if possible.
At the hearing, Kaufman testified that he still is determined to uphold the historic character of the building as much as possible when renovation work begins, but that it may be a difficult task.
“I don’t want anyone to be misled about my ability to retain some of the features that are being specifically mentioned,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to retain every single thing inside that building; I don’t want to try to get anyone’s sights too high on what is physically able to be done. Many things can, but I just have to throw that in there, because I’m not going to feel good if everyone thinks this is going to be an easy little job of retaining some of this.
“Anything that I can do to retain what’s inside that theater, I will do my utmost to do, but there’s a practicality, having already done the renovation once I know what I’m up against in there.”
Yates spoke in May of his plans to retain the theater as an entertainment venue in Old Town. He said he was looking to turn it into a haven for speaking events and lectures as well as host to a wide variety of other live events, including the Alexandria Film Festival.
“There are numerous retail shops and restaurants [in Old Town], but not a lot with entertainment,” he said at the time. “I’m looking to add substantive entertainment to the area and attract speakers who can speak to environmental, political and other important issues.”
But those plans seem to be at an end, especially with Kaufman’s revival of his original plan to turn the theater into retail space. Chapman registered his disappointment in developments with his “no” vote, and said after the hearing that he still wished to see the theater used as an entertainment venue first and foremost.
“I’m still in favor of hoping to have some type of entertainment venue in Old Town,” he said. “I was hoping that the theater would be able to make a comeback and sustain itself, so I wasn’t in favor of voting for something that might directly influence a real change of what happens there.
“We’ve seen across Virginia and other jurisdictions in the nation that some of these sites have served as theaters for a long time and been able to make a transition, so I was very hopeful that would happen. Even though it seemed like all the chips were down, I still wanted to make my voice known.”
Chapman cited the example of the Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse on Columbia Pike as an entertainment venue that reinvented itself.
“It’s unfortunate that this won’t be a theater when we look across at what our neighbors are doing in Arlington, where they’ve had the opportunity to take what used to be a theater and turn it into the Arlington Drafthouse,” he said. “It would be great to at the very least have some type of venue like that, but it does take an ability to be able to recreate it.
“I know there are differences on how Arlington operates and we operate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to have something that is a building like that that has such a rich history, still be able to make it among all the different options and opportunities there are for entertainment.”
In spite of Chapman’s reluctance, other city councilors were positive in their feedback on turning the theater into a retail space, and voted the proposal through. It remains to be seen whether it will become a retail space, or if Kaufman can find another buyer who will pledge to preserve its use as a cultural venue.
Neither Yates nor Kaufman responded to multiple requests for comment.