MADISON, NJ - The Madison Historic Preservation Commission continued its consideration of the demolition and replacement of the Madison Theater at its regular meeting held on May 28. This was a continuation of previous meetings on March 2, April 9, and May 6. The Commission announced that its final such meeting will be June 11 when it will deliberate and render its decision regarding the fate of the theater.

Jeff Gertler of Gertler & Wente Architects, architect for the owner of the property Saxum Real Estate, addressed questions posed in a letter dated May 21 from John Testa, attorney to the HPC, which concerned the scale and elevation of the proposed building. Gertler presented revised renderings which more specifically showed these dimensions.

Michele Donato, attorney to Save Madison Theater, cross-examined Gertler. Gertler agreed that the proposed residential and commercial building will be larger than the existing building. Instead of two stories as is the theater, it will be a three-story building in front and a four-story building in back. He explained that the fourth floor will be set back on all sides from the third floor. There will be a bulkhead, which has not yet been designed, on the top of the building. He also stated that most roofs in Madison are flat and that the movie theater is the only “big” building in Madison with a sloped roof. Donato stated that the applicant Saxum is requesting a significant variance over the height of existing buildings.

Sign Up for E-News

Janet Foster, HPC co-chair, stated that the view from the train station will be of the bulkhead if the new building is erected. Gertler countered that now the view is of tired gables. The new view will be a finished brick building.

Donato called as a witness William Killeen, a Madison resident and civil engineer, who specializes in structural engineering. Peter Wolfson, attorney to Saxum, objected that Killeen’s background as a structural engineer of bridges and in repairing homes in Cape May, is not relevant to the issue of the structure of the movie theater. Killeen argued that he has over 40 years as a structural engineer and that there is enough commonality among all structures to qualify him as an expert. His personal desire is that the building remain a theater but he is not a member of Save Madison Theater. He stated that he was not permitted to tour the buidling but based his opinion on previously introduced McManus and Hatch reports. He concluded that (1) the building is stable and safe and needs no additional exterior structural support; (2) the cracks in the terra cotta, which he said serves as the structural support of the building, need repair but do not present imminent danger; (3) the trusses are not under-designed and show no distress;  (4) to lighten possible load on trusses, one of two possible roofs could be removed; (5) that the rafters show “permanent set” but that this is not such a bad thing; (6) the building has not settled in the last half century; (7) destructive probing is not necessary to examine footings and that they are safe; (8) lintels over the windows are not an issue and if so, they can be removed.

Killeen testified that the building does need help, that it has been terribly neglected, but that older structures have “a lot of residual strength” and that it is not in imminent danger of collapse. In response to questioning by Wolfson, he stated he does not know the cost of rehabilitating the existing building nor if its restoration would have to meet current building code.

Attorney Donato next called as witness Nancy Zirbe, a historic preservation professional, who has a masters degree in historic preservation from Columbia University. She opined that the movie theater is being “undervalued” and contributes to the historic significance of the district. She expressed that its significance gives it protection. She explained that movie theaters have been very important in American history and that the Madison theater was an active part of Madison life. She stated that the theater is not “high style” but is representative of small-town movie theaters. She further said that the theater has a prominent and unique location in relation to the train station making it an established and familiar feature of the district. She believes that the effect of new construction in place of a significant building will be drastic to public interest and that the theater’s retention increases public value, attracts people to downtown, and encourages contemplation of American history. She advised that if the developer is permitted to build a new structure that is make reasonable efforts to try to maintain a movie theater. She also stated that there are many examples where existing buildings can be used for different, unanticipated purposes without demolishing them.

Attorney Donato then called her last witness, Sandy Kolakowski, who is president of the Save Madison Board and one of its founders. Kolakowski read a statement which is printed here in its entirety:

Thanks for this opportunity.  Sandy Kolakowski, Save Madison Theater, 10 Lincoln Place, P.O. Box 1232, Madison, NJ  07940

Save Madison Theater is the organization we founded after a very successful petition drive to quantify whether losing the theater was something that mattered to residents.  The petition former Mayor Woody Kerkeslager and I launched collected over 1000 signatures by friends and neighbors in its first few weeks. Today, it stands at over 2000 signatures.  Beside Woody and I, most of the trustees of Save Madison Theater are here tonight.

After the Borough Attorney told the Mayor and Council they should remain silent on the petition, it became clear that if the community’s desire to maintain the theater as a centerpiece of our historic district were to be realized, those of us that started the petition would be left with the harder task of forming a nonprofit and representing the community throughout these hearings.  

Saving the theater was something we believed was the right thing to do based on the overwhelming response by the community and the borough code that assures us in

§ 195-24.4Historic preservation.

A. Continued use of historic sites through adaptive reuse should be encouraged.

B.   Appropriate alterations of historic sites and improvements within historic districts shall be encouraged, while new construction which is not in keeping with the character of historic districts and sites shall be discouraged.

C.   Properties falling within the Historic District shall comply with the provisions of the Borough Code Chapter 112, § 112-1 et seq.

 

But was it financially viable?  Thanks to the generous support of Andy Breckman and Beth Landau, we were able to hire a researcher to see if there were financial models that were appropriate for reusing the theater.  What that research showed us were examples of historic theaters in towns with similar populations, not just surviving but thriving. I’ve brought copies of the survey that we have on our website in case the Commission hasn’t had the opportunity to review it.  I also have handouts sent to us by 2 theaters on the list-1 of which Mr. Hatch included in his report. And although there has been speculation at these hearings that our movie theater here in Madison might be too large to be sustainable, both the Colony—from Mr. Hatch’s report—and the Colonial theater are actually in the midst of large capital campaigns to add seating capacity.   There’s ample evidence that these community focused non-profit historic movie theaters have become primary ongoing community attractions drawing 1000’s of people to their downtowns.

So not only did it make sense from the standpoint of historic preservation and responsiveness to the wishes of the community, it’s definitely the right thing to do for the long-term economic health of the business district.  

Unfortunately, in this case, the developer hasn’t made an effort to work with us to enter an agreement with the Borough’s support—the initial goal of the petition nor to market the property to others who might be interested in capitalizing on our community’s desire to maintain the local theater.  Instead, they want to demolish the historic structure and build a 4-story apartment over retail complex that we think would hurt downtown Madison in several ways. The developers plan to offer a portion of the new building to theater operators doesn’t make sense. The room is simply too small and the ceiling is too low to attract the audience we think downtown Madison deserves.  We also are distressed that the renderings do not accurately reflect the massive size of the proposed building including the bulkhead and its relationship to the historic downtown. It’s the developer’s responsibility to accurately depict the proposed building in context. Their architect should be able to provide 3-dimensional visualization with measurements that accurately show what a pedestrian would see when they get off the train, walk down Lincoln, or Waverly, or Main Street.  This site is simply too important for the Commission to render an informed decision about compatibility without it.

In closing Save Madison Theater has developed a plan for restoring and reopening the theater—we’re just waiting for a willing seller—for the Principal of Saxum Mr. Rinaldi to have some compassion for the overwhelming wishes of our community.  He could be the real hero here. Through the efforts of the architect Jeff Gertler with input by Mr. Hatch and members of the HPC he has a building that I’m sure would be welcome many places —just not in the heart of our historic district – and certainly not at 14 Lincoln Place.

Kolakowski explained that her group would like to purchase and rehabilitate the theater and that there has been an “overwhelming response from the public to bring movies back.” She stated that it will cost “under one million dollars to rehabilitate the building,” but that the purchase price is set by the owner. She explained that her group is not willing to fund raise yet while the seller has expressed no willingness to sell and before the group has been granted federal non-profit status. She stated that the group has received commitments totaling $125,000 from people willing to contribute to the costs of purchase. She acknowledges that the group would hire a professional fundraiser. Wolfson asked Kolakowski how the group would be able to afford to pay the lease, which he said was at a low rate of $10 per square foot when Bow Tie Cinemas last operated the theater. She answered that the theater will be self-sustaining through movie tickets and concession sales.

A steady stream of audience members asked questions and stated comments both in favor of saving the movie theater and in favor of its demolition and replacement. The meeting concluded just prior to midnight.