Reviving the Senator

Our view: Pick the most economically viable bid for Baltimore's landmark theater

November 27, 2009

We were heartened by reports this week that the city has received at least four bids for the Senator Theatre that would continue its use as an entertainment destination in Belvedere Square. For years, the historic North Baltimore movie house has been an anchor for development in the area, and the city had a legitimate stake in protecting its investments there when it took control of the theater in July. Now that there are proposals on the table to preserve it as a venue for film, we hope the city can get itself out of the movie business as quickly as possible.

One of the proposals, by Baltimore developer JR Owens, would keep the theater as a venue for first-run movies but add 24 loft-style apartments in back and an underground parking facility. That plan would allow the new owners to maintain the theater's famous facade, front entrance and interior while creating living spaces aimed at attracting new residents to the area.

A second plan would transform the building into an adjunct of Towson University's WTMD radio station and have it serve double duty as a concert and movie venue. Towson envisions the space hosting local film festivals and retrospectives, concerts featuring performers heard on WTMD, children's programs and community fundraising events.

A third proposal, by Coppin State University Professor Enoch Cook III, calls for renting the Senator to present a combination of Vaudeville-style variety shows and art house films. And Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack would turn the venerable old movie palace into a mini-Charles - famous for its independent and foreign art films - complete with a restaurant and crepes shop.

All these ideas have the great merit of maintaining the Senator as an arts and entertainment destination at the center of a lively restaurant and retail sales district. The city's goal should be to choose the project that has the best chance of evolving into a self-sustaining, economically viable enterprise that creates employment and contributes to the municipal tax base.

That will require careful scrutiny of the bids and a sober assessment of what is possible given today's uncertain economic environment. The city may never get back all the money it's invested in the Senator; the least it can do is make sure that whoever takes over the theater can manage it well enough so they won't have to come back in a couple of years asking for another handout.

Readers respond
With the exception of WTMD's, the proposals seem universally awful. The idea of apartments is absurd, and Mr. Cook's proposal, while laudable in its intent, sounds dangerously underfunded. Most insidious of all is Mr. Cusack's offer, as he plans to make drastic changes to the Senator's famous architecture, including altering the auditorium and converting the historic bathrooms and lounges into eateries. This is obscene and proves that Mr. Cusack's proposal is not made in good faith.

As for WTMD's proposal, it sounds very much like what Senator supporters, including former Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, have been proposing and demanding for years. But we need to see an explicit business plan and plans for the building's restoration and maintenance.

What the Senator needs more than anything else is the input of experienced theater caretakers who have reinvigorated other historical theaters across the country, making them vibrant community centers while still respecting their architecture and design. Baltimore deserves nothing less.

Nathan Rosen

The Senator Theatre is a significant historic landmark on the National Register, and it's clear from the way the Baltimore Development Corp. is handling this process that they don't understand its value as a piece of history and art or its potential to generate tourism dollars. If they did, they would be consulting historic theater experts from around the country on how best to proceed. Some version of a community-based, nonprofit model has worked well for historic theaters all over the country. Indeed, among the theaters that have won the annual award from the League of Historic American Theatres, based here in Baltimore, all past winners take donations from the public, nonprofit style.

The WTMD/Towson proposal shows some promise, but I would not be able to support it without seeing the full proposal, specifically their plans for restoring and caring for this precious historic facility.

Laura Serena

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