MADISON, NJ – Demolition is the only way, said property owner Saxum Real Estate of the historic Madison movie theater. 

During a Historic Preservation Commission review on Tuesday of updated concept plans for the building at 14 Lincoln Place that was formerly home to Bow Tie cinemas, Saxum said extensive exterior damage throughout the entire structure made restoration of the 93-year-old theater virtually impossible.

Crumbling brick, cracks in the foundation and “severe deterioration” are just some of the reasons the Madison movie theater building, which closed its doors last year on Memorial Day Weekend, poses a “safety concern” and cannot be saved, according to Saxum structural engineer Dave Bush.

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When a developer wishes to demolish a historic property, the Historic Preservation Commission must first consider the “economic feasibility of restoring and rehabilitating the structure,” said commission member David Luber, but Bush told him this was not possible. 

“The types of repairs or modifications that would be needed are quite extensive,” Bush said, citing his experience with revitalizing similar properties.  

Regarding his two examinations of conditions at the Madison theater, Bush said there were significant issues with every wall he studied.  

Here, he details the extent of that damage:

“It’s really amazing...that the building was allowed to get to this level,” said commission member Chris Kellogg. “I mean, who was watching this?” 

Project architect Jeff Gertler said that the exorbitant potential cost of keeping the original structure is not feasible for most, including Saxum. 

“As a licensed professional, first an engineer and then as an architect, I would not venture a renovation of this building unless someone was to say, ‘I’ll spend no matter how much money it took to renovate this building,’” he said. “I wouldn’t sign off on this building.”

New Plans, One Theater 

Saxum has yet to submit any formal applications for development of the theater property, but updated plans paint a different picture than those presented Dec. 19 during a joint meeting of Madison’s Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission. 

Original concepts included space for two movie theaters and a pair of retail spaces on the ground level, with several dozen residential units housed on the upper levels. 

Current blueprints now call for one large theater with room for about 100 comfortable seats similar to those seen in the AMC Headquarters 10 of Morristown. The retail and residential plans remain virtually unchanged. 

As it currently stands, the building “is not a usable theater operation,” Gertler said. “I think we know that because it’s been for sale for over a year. It’s clear that no one else wants it.

“The opportunity can exist where you have one great theater in Madison that you can send your kids to, that you can go to on Saturday night, you can feel like you’re in a special place,” he said of the new design. 

“If you think you can do that with a building that’s 90 years old, with those four theaters that can’t be repurposed, I think that’s the wrong direction to take.” 

Some residents agreed. 

“We need to distinguish between historical value and a rundown eyesore,” said Mike Hiley of Pomeroy Road, who went on his first date with his now wife at the Madison theater 34 years ago. “It’s time to move on from this.” 

Replacing what some call a rundown theater with a new building that breathes life into downtown Madison, has economic value and contributes to the town in an ongoing way is the best option for this project, according to Gertler, who said the current structure is “obsolete.” 

“This building has lived a wonderful, 90-year life, and it’s really served the community well for 90 years,” Gertler said. “But at some point in time, it needs to come down and have something new in its place that’s wonderful for Madison.”

Sandy Kolakowski, who authored a petition to restore the theater with former Madison Mayor Woody Kerkeslager that gained about 1,700 signatures, said she still felt the theater should be saved and urged the commission to seriously consider keeping the original building. 

“I really hope that this commission will do everything they can to make sure our theater remains something that would be in an arts and leisure section and does not end up as a commemorative photo on the back of a magazine,” she said.

Clashing Viewpoints

Some residents took issue with the prospect of more residential housing in the downtown area. Current plans include space for 20 market-rate units and four affordable housing units above the theater. 

In response to concerns that the original building design proposed large upper-level windows that some felt would present a privacy issue for those living in the upstairs apartments, Gertler said the updated design would incorporate smaller windows in a pattern more consistent with other buildings seen in downtown Madison such as the British Home Emporium on 91 Main St. 

The size of the windows were not the only thing commission members and some residents said they felt was a problem. 

“Who is going to live above a movie theater with a train station across the street?” said Madison resident Jean Sher of the proposed upstairs residential units and the level of noise to which those residents would be subjected.

Others, including Susan Nichols, said they felt residential living would revitalize the downtown district, particularly from a retail perspective. 

“What retailers want is pedestrian traffic,” she said. “In order to keep our town viable and to fill existing retail space, we need more people (living) upstairs.” 

Saxum attorney Peter Wolfson said that in order to make the idea of a movie theater at 14 Lincoln Place financially feasible, Saxum “needs to realize a certain level of revenue through rent,” and upstairs housing is the way to make that happen. 

Saxum should consider using the site for civic rather than private or residential purposes, according to Kellogg. 

“Some, I think, would say that creating a wonderful new housing opportunities in downtown, which will lead to support of the downtown, walkability, new light and energy, as well as retail opportunities, is a civic contribution,” said Wolfson in response. 

Code Compliance May Not Be Enough 

Building codes for Madison historic district currently allow for a maximum height of 45 feet. Under current plans, the new theater building would reach about 44 feet at its highest point, according to Gertler, but commission members and residents said they were worried a structure that tall would not compliment others on the same side of the street—even if it complied with borough building codes.

Adding a fourth level would only make the structure appear even larger from the street, according to Amy Chase of Niles Avenue. 

The proposed building height would be consistent with several other structures in the downtown area, Gertler said, and would not compromise the historic integrity of the district.

“When a code is written, it’s written for a district,” he said. “It’s not written by street. To penalize the soon-to-be applicant because you’re on the wrong street, but everywhere else on all the other streets in (downtown) Madison are 45 feet would be a little bit arbitrary.”

Madison Area Chamber of Commerce President John Morris said Saxum’s plans are “what a town like ours needs” and believed the updated design would create opportunities for residents and retailers in Madison. 

“Good things do come to an end,” he said. “I think this is a perfect opportunity for Madison to embrace a quality developer.

“This developer really cares what’s going on, and they really want this building to be part of the fabric of the town.”

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