Nearly two years after buying uptown’s historic Carolina Theatre, Foundation for the Carolinas announced Monday that it has secured an $8 million gift from members of the Belk family for its renovation.
And in a possible momentum-builder for efforts to revitalize North Tryon Street, foundation officials said developers want to build a $60 million boutique hotel atop a new lobby that would conjoin the theater and the foundation’s headquarters next door.
The new complex will be named Belk Place, in honor of the gift from the families of Claudia Belk and the late John M. Belk, Charlotte’s former mayor, and Katherine Belk and the late Thomas M. Belk.
The foundation announced the gift at a celebratory luncheon Monday, and offered more details about its plan to bring the long-shuttered Tryon Street theater back to life as part of a $35 million restoration and construction project.
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“We are forever grateful for this exceptionally generous gift from the two families,” said Michael Marsicano, the foundation’s CEO. “Their extraordinary commitment will allow us to bring the Carolina Theatre back to life for our community with the grandeur it deserves.”
At the luncheon, which drew dozens of Charlotte’s business and civic leaders, Katherine Belk recalled riding the trolley to the theater to watch “Gone With the Wind” and other classic movies.
It was “a big event for me, and today is a big event for all of us,” she told the crowd. “I feel like I have come full circle.”
The work will involve building a new joint lobby with the foundation’s headquarters next door, combining the two buildings into what Marsicano described as a “mini-campus” focused on philanthropy and civic engagement.
He said the refurbished theater will become a civic meeting space for symposia, major speakers, panel discussions and documentary films.
The foundation plans to add three floors of office space above the lobby, providing expansion room for the foundation and possibly space for other nonprofit organizations.
Marsicano said when the foundation took control of the property, it had promised the city it would consider building commercial space above the theater, possibly offices. But he said the foundation’s research showed that would have required too much space and would have infringed on the theater.
Instead, the foundation is considering partnering with a developer to build a $60 million boutique hotel, which would go above the newly constructed lobby and partially overhang the theater.
It would be about 10 floors and 160 to 200 rooms, said Curt Walton, the former Charlotte city manager who now works on the theater project as a vice president for the foundation. No philanthropic or foundation dollars would go into the hotel project.
Marsicano told the lunch crowd that the foundation has a formal proposal from a hotel developer.
“We are studying its viability,” he said. “Stay tuned.”
The foundation hopes to start construction on the theater restoration and lobby by the end of next year, with the new theater opening by the end of 2017.
In an interview with the Observer, Marsicano and Walton cautioned that planning on the hotel remains in the conceptual stage; they didn’t give any start or completion dates.
While the theater will still be called the Carolina Theatre, foundation officials said naming the broader complex Belk Place echoes the family’s long history on the Tryon Street corridor.
The Belk department store near Trade and Tryon opened in 1927, the same year the Carolina Theatre did, and served as one of the retail anchors uptown for decades before closing in 1988.
M.C. Pilon, daughter of John and Claudia Belk, said the restoration of the theater will carry the Belk family’s legacy of public service and civic leadership forward.
“It’s generational,” she said of the project. “It’s able to honor the history of the Carolina Theatre, and to be something new and relevant, a forward-thinking space our community can use for the future.”
Her cousin, Katie Morris, daughter of Katherine and Thomas Belk, agreed, noting that her father always believed Charlotte was a “can-do” city that could tackle hard issues by working together.
“And Foundation for the Carolinas embodies that,” she said. “They don’t mind tackling the hard community issues. And this restoration of the Carolina Theatre will allow them to do more civic engagement around issues and bring more people together.”
The theater, located at 230 N. Tryon St., remains one of uptown’s most distinctive buildings, with wrought-iron chandeliers, Moorish tiled floors and a Spanish cathedral window.
The theater closed in 1978, and the city acquired it in 1986. Various renovation plans had fallen flat until the foundation in 2012 offered to buy the 36,000-square-foot theater from the city of Charlotte for $1 and use it as a civic meeting space and nonprofit hub.
The foundation has now raised $20.7 million of its $35 million goal. Bank of America gave $5 million earlier this year.
Restoring a special place
Walton, who is spearheading the project, said the new lobby will be built out to Tryon Street, eliminating a small “pocket” park next door to the foundation’s headquarters.
The park, which often features musicians and other artists, has proven popular. Marsicano said he’d like to add a rooftop park above the new lobby, if possible.
Three floors will go above the lobby, providing 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of office space, Walton said.
The lobby and theater renovation will cost about $25 million, he said, while the office space above it is estimated at $6.3 million. The land contributed by the city is worth an estimated $3.7 million.
The Carolina Theatre’s facade, dismantled by the city in the late 1980s and stacked under the stage, will be placed on the front of the new lobby, facing Tryon.
The Cleveland-based architectural firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky, hired earlier this year for a preliminary study into the theater’s condition, has been selected to design the theater renovation and the new lobby.
Walton said the firm will be paired with a local architectural company, but that a selection process hasn’t begun.
Westlake Reed Leskosky has handled restoration of more than 100 pre-Depression era theaters or movie houses, said its managing principal, Paul Westlake.
“We know what we’re dealing with,” he said. “We know how to put it back. … (The foundation is) ready to go and we’re ready to go.”
The theater holds a special place in the hearts of Charlotteans who knew it in its heyday. Sally Robinson, vice chair of an advisory group supplying the foundation with feedback on the project, recalled seeing her first movie there at age 4: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Now 80, she recalled getting such a fright when the wicked witch appeared onscreen that her parents took her to the lobby to calm her down.
Later, after her four brothers went to serve in World War II, the family kept track of the war via Movietone newsreels that played onscreen.
“It has this wonderful sense of memories for me,” she said of the theater. “I’m very excited about this.”
A catalyst for North Tryon
The project joins a growing number of developments announced recently along North Tryon. The corridor, whose growth helped spark uptown’s rebirth decades ago, has in some ways been eclipsed by South Tryon.
The $159 million Levine Cultural Campus has injected new energy into South Tryon since it was unveiled in 2010, bringing the 48-story Duke Energy Center and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts +Culture, the Knight Theater and the Mint Museum.
North Tryon, meanwhile, has seen a growing number of homeless people congregating on benches, which sparked debate recently over whether benches should be temporarily removed from near The Square at Trade and Tryon streets.
The foundation and Charlotte Center City Partners have launched an effort to craft a new master plan for revitalizing North Tryon. And new developments, including the 24-story SkyHouse apartment tower and Levine Properties’ new First Ward Park project, have cranked up in recent months.
Officials have been talking of a “civic district” concept that would tie into nearby institutions like the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, ImaginOn and Discovery Place, among others.
“I think it will be catalytic,” Marsicano said of the Belk Place project. “It’s going to start the ball rolling in a big way.”