MADISON, NJ - On March 12, Saxum Real Estate presented its plans to the Madison Historic Preservation Commission to redevelop the Madison Movie Theater into a commercial and residential building. Because Saxum’s proposal calls for the demolition of a building in the historic district, Saxum is required to appear before the Historic Preservation Commission. This was the third such presentation. The meeting was moved from the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building to the First Presbyterian Church due to high attendance. Among the many attendees were members of Save Madison Theater, a group that wishes to save the building and its theater use.
Vincent Loughlin, attorney for the Historic Preservation Commission, stressed that the commission does not have the ultimate authority to determine the structure that will be built. Instead, the commission will generate a report and recommendation to the Planning Board who will make that determination.
Peter Wolfson, a partner at the law firm Day Pitney and counsel to Saxum Real Estate, presented the background of Saxum’s purchase of 14 Lincoln Place, the Madison Movie Theater in February 2017. Bow Tie Cinemas, the theater’s operator, terminated its lease with Saxum last spring, and the theater closed on Memorial Day Weekend. Wolfson explained that the proposed replacement of the theater is a four-story building -- featuring retail, 24 rental apartments and space for up to two movie screens. He further stated that Saxum and its representatives met twice before with the commission, and incorporated many of its suggestions into the current design.
Anthony Rinaldi, the founder and managing principal of Saxum, then addressed the commission. He stated that the process to get approval for the proposed building has been challenging but he continues to be excited about it. He explained that when Saxum purchased the property, it did not have the intention to vacate the movie theater. As stated in an open letter from Saxum, “At the time of the acquisition, it was Saxum’s intent to allow Bowtie to continue to operate within the space until Saxum determined the best long-term plans for the building.” The letter further states that its efforts to interest other movie operators were futile –“Unfortunately, the operators had similar feedback: the building was in need of significant repair and, given the current economics of the theater business coupled with the extremely low local viewership, it would be difficult for them to even pay the discounted rent that Bowtie was previously paying, much less restore the building to a useable condition.” While acknowledging that some residents oppose the idea of a new building replacing the movie house, he stressed that there is equal sentiment of support. He explained that the development will generate an estimated $6.0 million in additional tax revenue over the next 20 years and will help enhance the walkability of the downtown by adding additional vibrancy and commerce to the community.
The audience was invited to question Rinaldi about his testimony. Among the questions included commentary that the model of the proposed building did not match the historical look of the district. He was asked about his comment that the present building was not a key contributor to the district; he replied that he deems the James Building a key contributor to the district. He was asked about his opinion that the building is not historically significant to which he stated that it had a utilitarian look. In its open letter, Saxum states “There is a misconception that the 14 Lincoln Place building is, individually, designated as an historical building. While the building is located within the Historic District in Madison and is of an older vintage, the building itself is not defined as a key contributing building. Most historic architects would agree, that a building’s historical value is not based on just on its age, but upon the historic contributions its architecture and design make. The building was designed for its utility, not for architectural value and therefore does not have a great deal of historic significance.” Sandy Kolakowski of Save Madison Theater asked Rinaldi whether Saxum outbid others who intended to keep the building as a movie theater. Rinaldi denied this. Kolakowski further asked Rinaldi whether “it matters that its been standing for over 90 years…”
Wayne Hostetler, P.E. of Thornton Tomasetti, testified as the structural engineer for Saxum. His report was entered into evidence. He stated that he had reviewed the report of John Hatch of Clarke Caton Hintz, an engineer engaged by the commission, and stated that their reports were consistent. Hatch’s report was also entered into evidence. Hostetler’s conclusion, after touring the building, was that it is structurally compromised with a sagging, cracked roof, rotted floor boards, interior and exterior wall cracking, deteriorating exterior walls, and cracked foundation cement. He opined that to rehabilitate the building would only be at great expense and that it is “more practical and economical to remove the structure.” Hostetler was questioned by members of the commission and the public. He answered that the most critical factor to be remedied is the settlement of the soil and the roof construction. He conceded that the building could be salvaged but “at great cost.” He posited that there has not been further deterioration of the building since it was sold even though it has been sealed without heating or air conditioning. He was questioned about the cost of rehabilitating the building but Loughlin, counsel to the commission, advised that it is not permitted to discuss specific costs but only economic feasibility and appropriateness of any proposed building plan. Hostetler then replied that it would not be economically feasible to rehabilitate the building. He said that the building is not in imminent danger of collapse. Hatch and John McManus of McManus Design Group, another engineer engaged by the commission, concurred with Hostetler that the problems in the building preexisted the current ownership. McManus’s report was also marked into evidence.
Next to speak was Jeff Gertler of Gertler & Wente Architects, Saxum’s architect. Gertler is a Madison resident who has served on the Historical Preservation Commission and Planning Board. The model of the proposed building created by his firm and a slide show narrated by Gertler were entered into evidence. He stated that his intent in the design was to reflect Madison’s history and also to project its future. He addressed several design imperatives including siting, size and scale, rhythm and directional emphasis, storefronts, materials, and building elements. He stated that the new building will be on the same footprint as the theater; that it will conform to the size and scale of neighboring buildings, particularly that of the train station across the street; that its vertical and horizontal rhythm and directional emphasis is similar to those of many of Madison’s other structures; that like most other retail stores in the borough, the new building will have storefront windows; that the proposed reddish brick matches that of other Madison buildings and that the buff-colored top floor matches the post office and the strain station; and that the building elements including the windows resemble those of other Madison buildings. Saxum’s open letter states that its project is only one foot and ten inches taller than the existing building.
Gertler stated that design modifications were made based on feedback at the prior meetings before the commission. Questions from the commission members included why the current renderings still “look like a Chelsea loft and why doesn’t the building look like Madison; how the proposed building’s industrial look can be compatible with Madison; how new similar buildings in Montclair and Brooklyn can be compatible with the “sleepy world of Madison.” Gertler replied that the building need not be an exact replica of other Madison buildings, that “its good to look like the successful cities of Brooklyn and Hoboken and the new building does reflect the downtown and will add character and add energy to the district.” He further stated that no building in Madison was exactly alike – that this adds to the beauty of Madison like a quilt. Gertler was reminded that the movie theater provides a canopy to passengers leaving the train station because it is directly across from the pedestrian tunnel. Gertler answered that this could be continued with the new structure. Gertler was further asked about the building’s scale and its relationship to the street and the train station, and the appearance of its fourth floor. Gertler stated that the scale of that floor could be reduced by reducing parapet on the third floor.
At 11:00 p.m., the previously announced closing time, the meeting was adjourned. A meeting of the Historical Preservation Commission will continue its hearing of this matter at its regular meeting on April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building.
Several members of the audience including members of Save Madison Theater were unable to pose questions because of the time constraint. Sandy Kolakowski of Save Madison Theater stated “it is unfortunate that so much time was spent on discussing the proposed building rather than what should be the focus: maintaining the landmark theater in our historic downtown. We hope that the focus at the next meeting will be on saving the historic structure and that the public will be given an opportunity to give its input on that subject.”