Main Art Theater supporters turn out for a rally at the closed theater on April 9.
ROYAL OAK – Advocates for independent cinema have banded together as the nonprofit Friends of the Main Art Theater in a bid to save the 80-year-old theater after it closed in June 2020.
However, private owners have the right to demolish any structure on their land at any time, and on April 12 the Royal Oak Planning Commission voted 4 to 2 to recommend approval of a proposed amendment to an existing planned unit development in theatre. site.
The next step is to submit the five-story mixed-use development, which includes retail, restaurants, residences and Class A offices, to the Royal Oak City Commission. City Manager Paul Brake said the commission will likely address the issue at its May 23 meeting.
Jordan Jonna, principal owner of North Main Square LLC, which owns the building, said the Bloomfield Hills-based company bought the building in 2017.
Landmark Theaters has terminated its lease and retired all projection equipment in 2021 “due to low attendance, changes in how the industry distributes independent films, and changes in viewing habits brought about by streaming options. streaming,” according to a statement from Patricia Radice of public relations firm Quell Group, which represents AF Jonna Development — owner of North Main Square LLC — and its legal counsel, Dennis Cowan.
Radice said the owners sought to keep the Main Art Theater open by leasing the space to another theater management group, but received no interest and the estimated amount to make necessary improvements to the capital expenditures, replacing projection equipment and reopening the closed theater exceeds $1 million for the first year.
“We don’t believe there is another building (which combines mixed uses) like this in Royal Oak. It’s new to the market and we’re looking to make a good investment here,” Jonna said.
The petitioners’ plan includes the refurbishment and installation of the main arts theater marquee outside the new development.
Cowan said the proposed development would improve the physical appearance of downtown and adhere to the city’s long-term goal of adding more office space to promote foot traffic to local downtown businesses. city.
The Friends of the Main Art Theater have been active in garnering support for its cause through attendance at the weekly Farmer’s Market, fundraising events such as a screening of Wes Anderson’s film ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ at the farmer’s market and two outdoor gatherings. theater.
The last rally on April 9 drew around 100 people and featured performances by the Detroit Party Marching Band. Supporters were on hand as they bundled up against freezing temperatures, holding signs and cheering as passing motorists honked their horns in support of the cause and volunteers wearing reflective vests watched for traffic on Main Street.
Speakers at the rally highlighted the importance of cultural diversity in the city, which the Main Arts Theater had provided for years, and encouraged supporters to attend the April 12 planning commission meeting.
At the April 12 meeting, supporters filled rooms at Royal Oak Town Hall. The Planning Commission received over 185 emails in support of the Friends of Main Art Theater mission and heard approximately two hours of public comment during the site plan public hearing.
Jason Krzysiak, Pleasant Ridge resident, president of Friends of the Principal Art Theater and former member of the Pleasant Ridge City Commission, said the group had two meetings with the developers during which “cordial and open conversations “.
The People’s Movement proposed an alternative non-profit business model to rent the theater as is and, if that proved unfeasible, work with the owners to develop a “micro-cinema” in the new development.
“Based on Friends of Main Art Theater funding sources, much of which are not yet secured, leasing the theater to the group represents a high-risk business transaction,” Radice said in a previous interview.
She added that the owners have offered to partner with Emagine Royal Oak to organize a series of films about the Main Art Theatre; create a mural paying homage to Main Art and independent films at the rear of the new building, which faces the Emagine Royal Oak car park; and to allow Friends of the Main Art to use certain theater artifacts at its events.
During the public comment portion of the Planning Commission meeting, condo owners on the fifth and sixth floors of North Main Lofts objected to the proposed five-story building, saying it would harm their south facing views.
A myriad of independent film supporters expressed the feeling that the loss of the theater would negatively impact the city as a diverse and cultural destination.
“Much of the artistic soul of Royal Oak has already been swallowed up by more and more condos and more and more restaurant chains. … (Without any theaters there) there’s no reason to advertise anything that isn’t there,” said John Monaghan, a Pleasant Ridge resident and local film programmer, from the marquee. . “Just throw it away. It’s a tombstone.
The Planning Commission also received letters of support from the Friends of the Royal Oak Woman’s Club Principal Art Theater who facilitated a speech at the venue by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Oak Historic District Study Committee.
State Representative Jim Ellison, a longtime Royal Oak resident who previously served as mayor, city commissioner and planning commissioner, said the first wedding he performed the day after he was sworn in as mayor had taken place in the lobby of the Main Art Theatre.
Ellison expressed support for the mission of the Friends of the Main Art Theater, but he felt that their efforts would be better received elsewhere, such as the auditorium on the Royal Oak campus of Oakland Community College.
“Your job is to judge whether the building and the design fit into the city, not to save a movie theater,” Ellison told the Planning Commission. “The landlord has rights, and you have to enforce those rights. … I would like to see the people at (Main Art Theatre) continue to organize and find a solution. I think it’s over there.
Proponents of the planned unit development project cited sprucing up a main downtown corridor of the city and affordable housing options amid a housing crisis.
The plan calls for 51 multi-family dwellings. Cowan said the units will come in various sizes, including studios.
“North Main Square isn’t looking to compete in the downtown luxury multifamily market, which they believe is pretty saturated at this point,” Cowan said.
The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to approve the planned unit development project recommendation with the contingencies listed, plus the additional contingencies of adding bicycle parking within the development, visual screening at any on-street parking on 11 Mile Road, and the best efforts to integrate a micro-cinema into the development.
Commissioners Woody Gontina and Ann Bueche expressed both noes.
Gontina warned the commission that the design of the proposed amendment to the existing planned unit development “sets a high bar” for any future applications that may be submitted to the body.
“I just want to point out that we have to be very careful with some of the eventualities that we have talked about. … It’s not up to us to design their project for them,” he said. “They put the application in front of us, and we just have to be very careful about what we can add to it or want to add to it.”
He added that the Planning Commission’s obligation to assess whether an application meets the appropriate regulations is a separate issue from the passionate members of the community who spoke about the building.
Bueche said she believes interactive arts venues, which contribute to “more vibrant, resilient, walkable and livable communities,” are a smarter investment than retail, which has been in decline for a century.
The May 23 Royal Oak City Commission meeting will be held at Royal Oak City Hall, 203 S. Troy St., north of East Third Street.
For more information about Friends of Main Art, visit friendsofmainart.com.