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Possible rebirth for uptown’s crumbling Carolina theater?

Foundation for the Carolinas wants to explore options for abandoned Carolina theater

By Steven Brown
sbrown@charlotteobserver.com

The long-abandoned Carolina theater may return to the spotlight after the Foundation for the Carolinas asked the city to let it look for ways to give the building a “creative rebirth.”

Developers, Charlotte leaders and residents who recall the theater’s mid-1900s heyday have struggled for decades to find a use for what used to be a North Tryon Street landmark. After the theater closed, parts of it were torn down. The surviving parts – mainly the stage and auditorium – have been hemmed in by neighboring development.

“The Foundation has no formal proposal to offer at this moment,” foundation President Michael Marsicano wrote to City Manager Curt Walton. But the March 22 letter asks permission to “explore possibilities.”

A developer’s plan to renovate the theater as part of a condo project on Tryon stalled during the recession. In December, the developer’s agreement to buy the building from the city expired. That led the foundation, which recently moved next door, to ask if it could get involved.

“We ... feel that the foundation may be uniquely positioned to help make this happen,” Marsicano wrote. The foundation’s nonprofit status enables it “to envision a program of activity and reuse for this building that does not have the restraint of being economically or market-driven.”

The city’s economic-development staff responded by setting up a meeting between the foundation and developers of the stalled project, said Brad Richardson, the city’s manager of business advocacy. After the talks, scheduled for next week, city staffers will study any proposals and take them to the City Council in May.

The theater, built in 1927, once was an uptown entertainment hub. The Charlotte Symphony played its first concert there. Two or three generations of Charlotteans developed glowing memories of attending concerts and movies.

But the theater suffered after its closing. Not only were the lobbies partly demolished, but the stage area is obstructed by structural changes made during building of the now-defunct CityFair. Leaders of arts groups have said the stage and offstage areas are too limited to serve present-day performances. The adjacent Hearst Tower leaves no room for expansion.

“If people think of how it used to be – it probably doesn’t have a life like that,” said Laura Smith, a vice president of the foundation. But it might be useful for lectures, meetings or film showings.

Under the expired agreement with the developers, the city would’ve used some of the tax revenue from the condo tower to help pay for the theater’s fix-up and operation, Richardson said. But that doesn’t mean any future deal would include that provision.

Brown: 704-358-6194
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