Curtain Will Rise In Old Town Theater

Curtain Will Rise In Old Town Theater

Planning approves requests allowing reopening of King Street landmark.

Alexandria Planning Commission Tuesday night acquiesced to all requests of Old Town Theater's new owner Roger Fonz, clearing the way for him to open the theater full time offering both movies and live entertainment. But total capacity for movies is still limited.

Barbara Ross, deputy director, Planning and Zoning Department, kicked off the presentation saying, "We are very supportive of reopening the theater." That accentuated the opening sentence of the staff report which emphasized, "Staff strongly supports the reuse of the Old Town Theater as a venue for live performances, movies and other destination activities."

However, movie audiences will remain limited to a maximum of 299, although the theater can seat up to 424. The reason being, the new building code requirements, pertaining to such public uses as movie theaters, now mandates that venues with seating capacities of more than 300 must have sprinkler systems. Old Town Theater does not.

That requirement has gone into effect since the theater was last operative. It does not apply to live performances.

There have been suggestions by Fonz and others that the theater should be eligible for exclusion from the requirement based on the theory of "grandfathering." It is anticipated that proposal will be brought to City Council when they act on the Planning Commission's recommendation.

Fonz's business plan contained two other elements which have brought forth objections both from Planning and Zoning staff and the Old Town Civic Association. One was the hours of operation and the other was the serving of alcoholic beverages.

Fonz's plan has called for the theater to have the potential to operate until 2 a.m. "every night of the week." And the latest change to the plan added "mixed drinks" to the beverage list. Originally, only beer and wine were proposed.

STAFF DROPPED its opposition to the hours of operation based on analysis in the King Street Retail Strategies study. In its report to the Commission staff stated, "staff ... is now supporting the hours proposed by the theater operator."

The only opposition to allowing the 2 a.m. closing time was expressed by Carolyn Merck, president, OTCA, speaking for the association.

"We have extensively surveyed our membership and the largest concern is for the theater to remain open until 2 a.m. all nights," she reported.

As for the mixed drinks, Merck said, "We understood that alcoholic beverages would be limited to beer and wine. We are seeking to limit what could turn into a sports bar."

Merck noted that OTCA's opposition to the late closing was based on concerns for neighbors in the immediate area and the impact on Old Town overall. She did indicate a willingness to "compromise to 1 a.m." if necessary. She also stated, "We are totally supportive of reopening the theater."

Countering OTCA's opposition to the 2 a.m. closing, city resident Julie Crenshaw emphasized, "It would behoove the city to be flexible and allow Mr. Fonz to meet his business plan. He should be allowed to function as he wants."

She also noted that the civic association in the immediate vicinity of the theater "has no problem with anything the applicant has applied for and the Inner City Civic Association is not opposing the requests."

Crenshaw pointed out, "I live within two blocks of the theater, not 10 blocks away like many members of OTCA, and I have no objections. This is not a franchise. This is main street United States. If this business plan doesn't go, the theater will be gone."

Duncan Blair, attorney representing Fonz, said, "When Roger looked at this project he had no idea movies would not be permitted." This was buttressed by Commissioner J. Lawrence Robinson who claimed, "I do not recall us excluding movies [when this was originally before the commission.]"

He add, however, "I would like to see conditions written so that it does not evolve into a sports bar." Blair pointed out, serving of alcoholic beverages will stop one hour prior to the conclusion of any event at the theater, movies included, regardless of closing time on any particular night.

In response to Merck's claim that no other establishment stays open until 2 a.m., Commissioner H.Stewart Dunn, Jr., asked the latest closing time for other restaurants and bars in the area. Staff noted Bistro Europa closes at 2 a.m. Others close at 1 a.m.

The commission voted unanimously to approve the application based on adherence to all condition, allowing the 2 a.m. closing, limiting alcoholic beverages to beer and wine, and allowing movies as long as the audience capacity remained within code limitations.

Immediately following the vote, Commission Chairman Eric R. Wagner, cautioned Fonz to "be aware of the concerns expressed" by the Commission. "If it is not operated properly you'll be back here and we'll have a very different conversation."

IN OTHER ACTION, the Commission:

*Approved a request by A&A Limited Partnership to amend a development special use permit (SUP) at Park Center, 4380 King St., to construct a multi-family condominium with affordable housing units. The project will not be under construction until 2006. The main concern pertained to parking and the number of vehicles generated by the project. Commissioner Donna Fossum suggested "It's time to study vehicle relationships to condo development." Commission Vice Chairman Richard Leibach praised the developers for their affordable housing proposal stating, "What we are being offered in affordable housing in this project is excellent. These developers do good work. I have great respect for them."

*Approved the development SUP for Maury Elementary School "to construct an approximately 5,000 square foot addition" to "accommodate students that are currently within the temporary classroom trailers." The primary concern expressed by residents present was that the construction would reduce parking on school grounds by seven spaces. Neighbors, particularly on Johnston Place, noted they were already crowded out of parking in front of their homes by school staff and events held at the school. The Commission added a condition to their approval that the city and School District work together to solve the parking problem. As one speaker stated,"I have talked with several principals at the school and received no cooperation. If fact it was just the opposite."