After being dark for eight years, the Pikes Theater in Pikesville is again the focal point of high drama -- this time about its own future as either a post office or a cultural arts center.
The U.S. Postal Service sees the Pikes, an art moderne-style fixture in the 900 block of Reisterstown Road since 1937, as the preferred spot to relieve the crowded Pikesville station at Old Court Road and Walker Avenue.
The Postal Service is in the final stages of negotiating a long-term lease for a customer services branch at the Pikes, leaving the present station just for the mail carriers.
The building's owners see the plan as creating potentially "the most attractive location in Pikesville" on the main strip. Local merchants, however, see it as a threat to traffic flow, to already scarce parking and, ultimately, to their businesses.
"If the Post Office goes in there, without a doubt it will destroy a block of Pikesville," said Will Reich, a co-owner of Jilly's Restaurant, across the street from the theater. His patrons "will just bypass this," he said.
Neighboring merchants have banded together as the 1000 Block Association and asked a lawyer to review the county master plan for the area and suggest they might influence the future use of the theater.
The county master plan calls for a cultural arts center in the area. Reich said his group is thinking of appealing to all of Pikesville to raise money to help the county condemn and take the building for development as an arts center. One way to raise the money, he said, might be for some property owners to volunteer to pay higher property taxes to help fund the project. The county has already said that buying and developing the Pikes would cost too much.
"It's our problem and we're going to have to solve it," Reich said. "And in order to solve it, we're going to have to come up with some dollars." He has in mind $650,000, which is the price Reich said he negotiated earlier this year to buy the theater as a new site for his restaurant. The deal fell through.
Even if they raise the money, the merchants still need the county to act, specifically for the planning board to declare the Post Office proposal in violation of the county master plan. The county Economic Development Commission is studying that question and is to report to the planning board later this month.
The 1000 Block Association objects not just to a post office, but to any business in the theater building that would bring heavy commerce during the busiest traffic hours of the week. It hopes that an arts center would attract people as did the Pikes during its days as a theater, mostly in the evenings and on weekends.
The U.S. Postal Service, however, says that traffic around a post office at the Pikes would flow far better than it does now around the Old Court station.
For one thing, the mail trucks would continue to use the Old Court Road station. And the traffic light at the Pikes would ease left hand turns from the parking lot onto the road, postal officials said, alleviating a primary cause of congestion at the Old Court Road station. Also, the Pikes lot could hold as many as 52 customer cars, compared with about 10 at the Old Court Road station.
Charles Piven, the lawyer for his family's trusts that own the Pikes, objected that opponents of the post office idea have been trying to make him "feel like a criminal" for developing property for a use that is completely within bounds of local zoning laws.
A post office in the Pikes would pose no more traffic problems than any other new commercial use on the block, he said, and it would be "a natural draw" for business.
Piven vowed to fight any taking of the Pikes by the county. He questioned whether his opponents would accept any development of the Pikes that would end their access to the parking lot they rent behind the theater.
"Frankly, I don't think anyone wants it to be a cultural arts center," Piven said. "I think everyone wants it to be a parking lot."
Joseph Kryszpel, a partner in the Suburban House Restaurant two doors down from the Pikes, said he uses the lot for his customers to park and as an unloading area for delivery trucks.
If the Postal Service takes over the Pikes and declares the lot off-bounds to delivery trucks, Kryszpel said, the trucks will have to unload at the restaurant's front door on Reisterstown Road, blocking traffic in the process.
"We are completely disappointed and disgusted with the negligence of the authorities to help us out," Kryszpel said.
What turns his hair gray, he said, is that the county is preparing to spend $2 million for new sidewalks, fountains and greenery along the Reisterstown strip between Sudbrook and Old Court roads. Kryszpel thinks the money should go toward turning the Pikes into a cultural arts center.
"Two million, two million good American bucks. Pikesville will not benefit whatever from shrubbery on the sidewalk," he said. "We do not sleep at night thinking about $2 million worth of shrubbery."