Council to vote on forming historic theater district

Posted December 6th, 2011 / Industry News

Council to vote on forming historic theater district

The Seattle City Council will vote Monday on a historic theater district made up of five downtown theaters built before 1930.

By Emily Heffter

Seattle Times staff reporter

McGinn said the theater owners came to him to present their idea, and he told them the city couldn’t afford to commit any tax dollars to it right now. In the long term, the district will help the city preserve and promote the theaters, but also create programs so they can become more energy-efficient.

5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle
Enlarge this photoELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle

ACT Theatre, Seventh Avenue and Union Street, Seattle

Enlarge this photoELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

ACT Theatre, Seventh Avenue and Union Street, Seattle

Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle

Enlarge this photoELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle

Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle

Enlarge this photoKEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle

Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle

Enlarge this photoELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle

Enlarge this photo 

Movies kept the Paramount alive after vaudeville died. From 1956 to 1958, it was a Cinerama theater.

Enlarge this photoSEATTLE TIMES FILE

Movies kept the Paramount alive after vaudeville died. From 1956 to 1958, it was a Cinerama theater.

Downtown Seattle’s five landmark theaters have survived fundraising slumps, the rise of television and a couple of seemingly imminent dates with wrecking balls.

Now the five pre-1930 venues — the 5th Avenue, the Paramount, the Moore, A Contemporary Theatre and Town Hall — are forming a historic theater district as a marketing move supporters hope will draw tourists and raise money.

At first the district, which the Seattle City Council will vote on Monday, will only formalize the five theaters’ shared history and mission. Eventually, the district could apply for grants, work together on energy upgrades, or get city zoning that would place value on the theaters’ historical significance. For example, the city could develop a program to allow theater owners to sell historical preservation “credits” to developers who want to build something in another part of town. Seattle has a similar program to encourage affordable housing, and the county uses a similar program to preserve farmland.

“More than anything, we’re trying to develop a platform that could help us build in numerous directions so that 10 or 20 years from now, the historic theaters are thriving even more than we are today,” said Josh LaBelle, executive director of the Seattle Theatre Group, which owns the Moore and Paramount theaters. It also owns the Neptune, in the University District.

Seattle’s district would be unique not only because its theaters are historic, but because they are open and successful. The 5th Avenue Theatre reopened in 1980 and has produced 14 new musicals in the past 10 years, including two that won Tony Awards. The Paramount hosts Broadway, Off-Broadway, dance and jazz, concerts and comedy. The smaller Moore attracts community events and alternative touring musicians and theater. ACT has four venues and puts on more than 500 contemporary performances each year, and Town Hall has hosted hundreds of speakers and events about arts, politics and culture.

“Seattle already has a bit of a reputation of being a home to many artists and to many people in the creative industry, and we have a few really historic gems downtown, so it’s nice to link those two together,” said Councilmember Nick Licata, whose committee approved the district resolution Wednesday.

Mayor Mike McGinn plans to sign the resolution at a Tuesday media event at the 5th Avenue Theatre. “We’re highlighting one of the things that makes Seattle special,” he said. Having a cluster of historical theaters downtown adds economic value to the city.

“A lot of other cities would love to have what we have here in terms of our culture and nightlife scene.”

The Moore is Seattle’s oldest theater, built in 1907 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, along with the Paramount Theatre. What is now ACT was an Eagles hall until it was redeveloped in 1995, and the building that houses Town Hall spent most of its history as a church. Town Hall bought it in 1998.

The 5th Avenue Theatre was almost demolished in the late 1970s before a business group raised $2.5 million to restore it. It was “the artistic pioneer” of the 1980s downtown revitalization, said managing director Bernadine Griffin, ensuring that downtown Seattle had a nightlife.

“We bring a million people to the downtown core,” she said. “Obviously, they’re not just going to our shows. They’re parking, they’re shopping, they’re eating, they’re staying in our wonderful hotels.”

In 2010, the five theaters hosted more than 1,000 performances and provided more than 2,000 local jobs. They drew 75 percent of their audience from outside Seattle, according to a spokeswoman for the historic theaters.

The theaters plan to start with hanging banners from light poles, going in together on federal and state grant applications, and marketing downtown to tourists.

McGinn said the theater owners came to him to present their idea, and he told them the city couldn’t afford to commit any tax dollars to it right now. In the long term, the district will help the city preserve and promote the theaters, but also create programs so they can become more energy-efficient.

“That’s what it lends itself to,” McGinn said, “getting an understanding of the unique needs of the theaters and being able to deal with a single entity” instead of five different historic buildings and five different nonprofits.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com.

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