MADISON, NJ – Potential concepts for the now-closed Madison movie theater call for the demolition of the 92-year-old historic building that most recently housed Bow Tie Cinemas. 

Preliminary designs would replace the structure with a multi-purpose space that includes two movie theaters, a pair of retail stores and two dozen residential units. 

These ideas were outlined on Tuesday night during a joint meeting of the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission, which attracted at least 150 area residents.

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Located on 14 Lincoln Place, the property is currently owned by Saxum Real Estate of Parsippany. The proposed new structure is four floors, with shops and theaters on the ground floor and residences on the upper levels. 

“This project is the epitome of a transit-oriented, mixed-use development,” said Saxum attorney Peter Wolfson.

Movie theater blueprints show that one theater would contain 40 seats and other, 42. Though several residents expressed concern about the size of each theater, this is “the best design and the best scale for attracting an operator in today’s reality for that industry,” Wolfson said.

Sandy Kolakowski, who petitioned the borough this summer to save the historic theater, said she felt Saxum did try to extend an olive branch with the inclusion of the two theaters, but said she had serious issues with their size.

The new design is a “half-hearted attempt to address our overwhelming requests to keep the movie theater by knocking in two small rooms in the back that no movie operator will be able to work with and extending that as an olive branch,” she said. 

“I hope my fellow residents won’t be fooled by it because it’s just a stick—olives and leaves aren’t included.”

Attendance figures reported for the old Madison theater were extremely low, Wolfson said, less than 20 people per showing. Bow Tie also closed theaters in Montclair and Summit due to low turnout. 

“Traditional movie theaters are a dying breed,” Wolfson said. “This is a reality of our times and the changes in the consumption of content. Despite the undeniable trend of movie theater closures, Saxum has laid out space for two theaters in its design. Saxum is sensitive to the sentimental importance that the theater holds for some Madison residents and will continue to explore way to make it work.”

Each of the new theaters were designed around the model of comfortable seating seen at theaters like the one in Morristown, according to project architect Jeff Gertler, who has sat on Madison’s Planning Board, Historic Preservation Commission and the Environmental Commission. 

Current concepts would also allow for 20 market-rate residential rental units and four affordable housing units above the theater, as well as 24 subterranean parking spaces for residents. Two dozen spaces is not enough for two-car families and is not viable when residents have visitors, said Madison resident Bob Madara of Wayne Boulevard.

A Building in Disrepair

Many residents have called for the theater’s preservation, but Gertler said the building is in rough shape and engineers have advised against renovations or building on top of the current structure. 

A diagonal crack that begins in the theater’s basement and extends across the east side of the building is a “clear indication of some foundation failure where part of the building below has given out,” Gertler said. 

The structure also shows evidence of significant water damage and contains asbestos, according to Gertler, which can cause serious medical issues such as mesothelioma.

“This is an old, decayed, decrepit building that you would not want to build on top of,” he said.

Saxum founder and managing principal Anthony Rinaldi said his firm does everything it can to revitalize historic buildings when they are are structurally sound, but in Madison this is not the case.  

“We have heard the outcry of many of the folks in this town about losing the theater,” he said. “We understand that and are sensitive to it. We spent a lot time, money and effort into coming up with a plan that we think addresses those needs.”

Saxum has not yet submitted any formal applications to the borough for this project, and all construction will need approval from both the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission before any renovations or demolition can begin.  

When a developer wishes to demolish a historic property, the Historic Preservation Commission must consider the building’s “importance to the municipality and the extent to which its historical or architectural value is such that its removal would be detrimental to the public interest,” said Historic Preservation member John Solu, citing local policy.

Madison building ordinances require a maximum height of 45 feet for all structures in the downtown district, which can be no more than three stories. Concepts show the new structure would exceed these limits with a proposed four stories at a height of 47.5 feet, which would require the approval of several variances from local entities before the project starts.

Reinvention, Not Restoration

The proposed design is not at all reminiscent of the current theater, said Historic Preservation member Mary Ellen Lenahan, but Gertler said the mixed-used design was not meant to recreate the original structure.

“This is a new building, he said. “It’s a building of its age. The goal was to invigorate the downtown...not to make it just like the old building.

“This (new) building is not a movie theater building so it would be peculiar to ask a designer to build a residential and retail building to make it look like an old movie theater. It would be like tying your hands behind your back and asking them to swim.”

Concepts do include several physical elements of the 92-year-old structure, including a recreation of the ticket booth that currently sits at the theater’s entrance and the original plaque that reads “Madison Movie Theater 1925” would be removed and embedded at the front of the new building.

In an attempt to maintain a “Madison look” in the new building, Gertler said the design would incorporate aesthetic features seen in structures throughout the downtown area, including reddish brick and large windows that mimic the appearance of many shops on Main Street.

“Many buildings in town have fairly high windows,” he said. “Those buildings, when the lights are on...you can’t help but look inside. You want to engage with that store and what’s inside of it. That’s what we want to do with this building.”

Though the windows are reminiscent of those in Madison, they are not consistent with the style of those seen on Main Street, said Planning Board member Rachel Ehrlich.

“The windows in the proposal here harken back to an industrial or a factory style, which may be is typical of Jersey City or Hoboken or other vibrant, transit-oriented downtowns, but it feels a little bit out of place in Madison,” she said. 

Large windows could also present a privacy issue for residents who would occupy the upper floors, Ehrlich said. 

“These are large windows looking into people’s living rooms and bedrooms right on the street and directly across from the train station platform,” she said. “I’m wondering if we won’t typically be seeing the back of people’s drapes because they’ll feel somewhat exposed here on Lincoln.” 

Designs also show ivy plantings at the back of the building near its base that would mimic that which grows up the walls of the rear train station entrance across the street. 

Public Outcry

Several area residents said the project is “a monstrosity,” “sticks out like a sore thumb” and “looks like a Brooklyn warehouse.” Some even brought posters that read “Save the Madison Theater” in protest of the new design, and many said preserving the old theater is a better option.

Deborah Fennelly brought up the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown as one example of an old theater that has been revitalized, though it is unknown whether the structural issues at that theater were similar to those found in Madison.

“When I last went there, I believe in 1983, there were buckets catching the water as it poured,” she said. “Through a group of dedicated friends of that theater, law firms and other businesses began to give money, volunteers would show up on weekends and help do work...that theater has now become an arts center for the region.” 

There are ways in which a neighborhood movie theater can thrive on its own, averaging about 100,000 tickets sold annually in towns similar in size to Madison, and provide far-reaching benefits to surrounding businesses, said Kolakowski.

Younger residents like Jasen, 10, and Camryn, 12, Morales said the historic theater is “big piece of Madison,” but others, including John Morris of the Madison Area Chamber of Commerce said residents should consider letting it go. 

“People want to live in downtown and in buildings like this,” Morris said. “To re-engineer this (current) building would be a phenomenal expense.”