December 4, 2012

Divisive first act sets stage for Carolina Theatre's future

A contentious battle has emerged over the future of the long-vacant Carolina Theatre site in uptown, with a City Council committee Monday narrowly backing a proposal to use it as a nonprofit hub.

A contentious battle has emerged over the future of the long-vacant Carolina Theatre site in uptown, with a City Council committee Monday narrowly backing a proposal to use it as a nonprofit hub.

The city’s economic development committee voted 3-2 in favor of the Foundation for the Carolinas proposal. It wants the site for $1, and would renovate the theater and add an office tower in front.

Two council members supported the ARK Group, which developed the N.C. Music Factory in uptown. Its leaders, who are offering $500,000 for site, pledged to continue their bid.

The City Council will consider the committee’s recommendation Dec. 17.

A third group, CMP Carolina Theatre LLC, had an earlier agreement with the city to develop a condo building on the site and redevelop the theater. It claims to have invested $2.5 million in planning and preparation since it entered into a purchase agreement with the city in 2006. It’s now planning a mixed-use building and would pay $250,000.

That agreement expired Dec. 1 of last year. However, CMP officials insist it was allowed to lapse on advice from city staff, who knew the company was working on a modified plan to move the project forward more quickly.

For boosters, the competition is heartening: It means the theater, vacant since 1978, will probably be redeveloped in some form.

The two proposals gaining support call for renovating the theater to a variation of its historic opulence, and putting a multi-story office building on the empty lot in front.

However, there are differences in planned use:

• The foundation, with its headquarters adjacent to the site, imagines the theater and office building as a nonprofit hub that would be part of a South Tryon Street “Civic Campus” that includes Discovery Place, the Main Library and Spirit Square.

The foundation would partner with a developer on the office tower, which would rent out space to a mix of nonprofits and for-profit companies. The theater would be used for civic gatherings with entertainment on weekends, foundation officials said. The theater would be a nonprofit operation off the tax rolls, but the office tower would not.

• ARK envisions a commercial site that would devote time and space for nonprofits.

Among those who supported the foundation’s proposal was council member Warren Cooksey, who said he trusted it would follow through with the historic renovation of the site.

“I want this property out of the city’s hands, never to return,” he said. “I want it off of our plate. The foundation is in essence pledging to do what we’d like to get done. I think the foundation is the most equipped to be able to take it off the plate and keep it off our plate.”

Committee member Patrick Cannon supported ARK’s vision for the site. Among the points Cannon cited was ARK’s offer of $500,000, a pledge to put the entire property back on the tax rolls and its track record of preserving historic venues like the site of the N.C. Music Factory, a former textile mill.

ARK is promising that it would begin work within 18 months of being awarded the site, and would have live entertainment returning to the theater by January 2015.

The foundation estimates it could take three to five years to get the project started.

“Profits do mean something,” Cannon told the committee. “You can’t ignore that we ought to be thinking about that. This is a business decision from where I’m sitting.”

Built in 1927, the city-owned theater at 230 N. Tryon St. is Charlotte’s most high-profile vacant building, located just two blocks from Trade and Tryon.

It was for a time the flagship of Charlotte entertainment, but closed in 1978, and the city acquired it in 1986.

Among those who left the Monday meeting feeling encouraged was Charlie Clayton of the Carolina Theatre Preservation Society.

The society has been trying to get the theater reopened for nearly two decades, he said.

“It warms my heart that there was all this energy in the room over restoring this place,” he said.

“Everybody seemed to be on the side of the theater finally. Before, it was all about making money, money, money off the property. Now, it’s all about how important it is to preserve the theater and preserve our history.”

Jim Donnelly of CMP said he was going to consult with his partners before giving a response to the committee’s vote.

“This was a problem that nobody could solve for 25 years, and had our group not stepped up, the Carolina Theatre would have been torn down several years ago,” he said. “That’s where we’re coming from. We were the only guys who could come up with a plan that was a solution.”

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