It seems like Old Town Alexandria has everything…except a movie theater. For years, the marquee at 815 1/2 King Street has been blank as a series of owners have struggled to turn the Old Town Theater into a profitable business. Now Asana, the North Carolina-based company that bought the theater for $4.4 million in January, is looking for a tenant. But the question is whether the 4,400 square foot property, built in 1914, will remain a movie theater.
"We're not sure," said Reed Kracke, Asana's development director. "We're actively marketing the space and we're in conversations with several different users. We think it's one of the most iconic buildings in Old Town. With over 45 feet of frontage on King Street, there's very few buildings that have that kind of presence."
It's the latest of over 20 acquisitions in Old Town for Asana, which bought the property from Alexandria businessman Jeff Yates, who died from cancer last month. Yates, who bought the property for $3.6 million in 2015, had planned to reopen the property as a retail space after the theater's previous owner, PMA Properties, invested $1 million in a renovation and successfully lobbied the Planning Commission and City Council to rezone the theater for retail. Before that, PMA Properties bought the theater for $2 million from Roger Fons, who bought it in 2003 for $1.1 million and was not successful in turning a profit over a nine year stretch despite adding food, beer and wine to the theatergoing experience. At one point, Fons was forced to shut down the theater when city inspectors found multiple code violations, including a cantilever system he designed that lifted heavy lead sheets over the second floor balcony to divide the space into two theaters.
""It would be great if it returned to being a theater," said Mayor Allison Silberberg. "The Old Town Theatre has been a historic landmark on King Street for over 100 years. I'd love to see it reopen and continue its historic legacy with a current usage."
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who is running against Silberberg in this year's mayoral primary, agreed. "The theater is an iconic site in Old Town, and I would love to see it remain a theater or performing arts space," he said. "Failing that, I would like to see the site return to productive use."
Megan Podolsky, the owner of 529 Kids Consign, is also the president of the Old Town Boutique District.
"It would be great for a live music venue. Why does D.C. get to have all the fun?" Podolsky said. "I think a theater would be great, too, and it should stay that use. We need to take it up a couple notches."
Boyd Walker owns the building across the street from the theater — 818 King Street.
"Once again the City of Alexandria has missed an opportunity to ensure that it stays a theater," Walker said. "Asana is looking to make a profit, but it might not lead to the best decision for Old Town as a whole. And I'm happy that Asana is a company putting money into buildings, but maybe they should have a couple open houses. If it's to be used as a performance venue — it really needs the support of the community."
Asana has been making waves in Alexandria since pouring over $100 million into King Street. Their tenant Conte's Bike Shop at 1100 King Street is set to open in just over a month and the Board of Architectural Review just approved plans to split the former European Country Living space at 1006 King Street into two separate retail storefronts on the ground floor and an independent office on the second floor. Additionally, the City Council just approved a special use permit for Mexican restaurant Urbano 116 to operate at 116 King Street.
One thing is for sure — the marquee at the Old Town Theater that for decades flashed the names of movies and performers — will remain.
"We will likely, when we identify a tenant, work with them and the city to make sure that the nature of the signage is celebrated," Kracke said. "The building has been vacant for close to two years. Obviously we think that is something that hurts overall community, so part of our investment strategy on King Street with the significant investment we've brought to date is to bring fresh energy into these buildings."