Plans For Reviving Upper Montclair’s Bellevue Theatre Still In Play

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Back in March 2018, there was a plan to bring the Bellevue, Upper Montclair’s beloved and historic theater which closed its doors in November 2017, back and better than ever with six screens, reclining seats — and a restaurant serving liquor, possibly by January 2019.

It’s January 2019, and the movie theater is still dark, but Highgate Hall LLC., a team comprised of Luke Parker Bowles, Steven Plofker, Larry Slous, Patrick Wilson, Vincenzo Onorati and Andy Childs, are still in negotiations with the landlord of The Bellevue Theatre more than 12 months since its closure, says Parker Bowles.

“We expect to reach an agreement, despite the time it is taking and look forward to giving Montclair the theatre they deserve and the iconic space they are missing, complete with a smorgasbord of new bells and whistles but maintaining the pedigree and history of the place,” says Parker Bowles. “The plans are drawn up and the right people are in place. Despite the arduous process, we are as determined as ever and will keep all informed as and when we can come to an agreement.”

First Ward Councilor Bill Hurlock and Mayor Robert Jackson have told Baristanet that the town would support a plan that would bring movie goers back to the Bellevue.

Regarding the efforts of Parker Bowles and partners, “the town is committed to working with that group or any group that can come up with a viable plan,” says Hurlock, adding that initially at least two groups had come forward with interest in keeping the theater operating.

The loss of the theater is felt by area businesses as it had been anchor of sorts in Upper Montclair, Hurlock said, adding that the theater was also greatly missed during the Montclair Film Festival.

The township could support Highgate Hall’s plan by granting a special limited liquor license held by the municipality. The town would have to be the initial leasee on the property and then would sublease it to the group who would run the theater/restaurant. The license would not be transferable and could not be sold. It would only be operational if the premises were run as a movie theater/restaurant.

Original lounge of the Bellevue Theatre, with the staircase to the balcony on the right

In its 95-year history as a functioning movie theater, the Bellevue included amenities including a balcony, and a second-floor restaurant, named the Highgate Hall, that offered full meals such as lobster Thermidor, sirloin tips, or stuffed turkey, according to Friends of Anderson Park’s
Lisanne Renner, who gave a lecture on the Bellevue’s history as an architectural treasure at Montclair History Center in January 2018.

The original auditorium of the Bellevue Theatre, before it was subdivided into separate screening rooms

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19 COMMENTS

  1. I’m assuming the Council is floating a trial balloon as to the liquor license scheme…and they should. It’s a bad idea. It’s bad financial policy and bad land use policy.

    Councilor Hurlock was recently lauded on these pages for beating back over-development in U Mtc and now he is thinking about financially subsidizing two of the most parking-intensive land uses in a single, 14,000 sf building. Nights and weekends will result in 175-250 car parking demand. The capacity of the municipal lot across the street is 224 spaces. There are less than 700 public spaces in the U Mtc Village area. This includes lots and other metered and non-metered spaces. That’s just the parking issue.

  2. Upper Montclair goes quiet at night and the Bellevue Theater can help. There is no parking problem after 6pm so if the theater becomes a restaurant too and/or brings in more people to that area who also use restaurants and shop there, that’s good news, not bad. Makes all the commercial real estate more valuable.

    On Saturday, on the weekends, of course, parking is tight. Especially late AM until afternoon. Might be smart to run kids or old tween movies afternoons then and give parents a place to drop their kids off…to shop in nearby stores. First matinee’ showing noon or 2pm Saturday-Sunday would be fine. I see ‘Back to the Future’, E.T., Home Alone…or new offers. Switch to adult fare 6pm-night.

    But the neigh saying by Frank Rubacky above is unwarranted. Arts and entertainment programming brings in guests and visitors. It’s a good economic development tool. That’s in addition to the cultural and historic preservation returns from saving this historic theater. With town liquor license or not. Just bring it on.

  3. A reasonable counter viewpoint….but, it has more than a few holes in it from a parking point of view.

    I’ve looked at where a relatively large bar/restaurant could go into the village and it doesn’t work without a big parking variance or something like what I call “The Crosby Scenario”. Maybe the Council, as the lease holder, could pass another Lackawanna-style resolution instructing the Planning Board to approve the application. It’s Redevelopment practice that’s skips Redevelopment law.

    To misapply historic preservation is another hole. HP doesn’t preserve a use. It attempts to preserve the physical site.

    This development scheme is following the first drafts of the Master Plan rewrite where the Mayor envisioned the Bellevue Parking Plaza surface lot be replaced by a parking deck. I’m sure that day will come sooner than later if the Township pursues ideas like this.

  4. Correction: there is one parcel in U Mtc that is ideally suited for a large bar/restaurant – the Acme. I went in there last night @ 7:30 and I could have rolled a bowling ball down any aisle and not hit a customer. Reminded me of a Sear’s store.

  5. I would love to see the return of the Bellevue Theater “better than ever with six screens and reclining seats”….minus the restaurant! I agree with Frank Rubacky; parking in the Upper Montclair village is extremely tight, traffic is more congested than ever, and there are not enough handicapped parking spaces. Furthermore, there is a restaurant right across the street in the parking lot for the NJ Transit train, and one, two or three other restaurants in the same area. The Bellevue Theater was a wonderful local, family friendly theater for young children, tweens, and adults. Montclair is and has always been “on the map”. Do we really need to attract more outsiders to this township? Is that the goal? Are we, in our over development, getting away from the small-town feel of Montclair that I’ve always known as a native Montclairite?

  6. It is a pathetic New Jersey pathology to want to kill off businesses and artistic opportunities such as a movie theater / restaurant complex out of an obsessive concern about parking. Leave your damn cars in the driveway and walk or ride a bike. Or just stay home and watch television. I wouldn’t want you to strain your eyes or tax your brains reading a book.

  7. Noted. Another NJ pathology is to look at development through rose-colored glasses.

    The proposal is to forego a present value ~$1MM asset (the license) for a discounted future value deal. The Township now manages a commercial lease. Do we do that currently? Trying to wrap my brain around that.

    I can’t wait to hear the economic multiplier argument of having both uses in the same building versus the scenario of selling the liquor license outright to the redeveloper of the Acme supermarket parcel.

    The historic building’s exterior is protected either way, but the inside has lost most of its historic fabric and the owners can do anything they want to the interior anyway. What if the new theater turns out to be unsuccessful – may be due to the lack of parking (e.g. the Wellmont). Do you think a council is really going to yank the liquor license? I would doubt it.

  8. A stand alone theater is not viable. The previous operators exit and the lack of interest from traditional movie theater chains has made that clear. If the township and residents really wants it to remain a theater, then they are going to need to find an alternate revenue stream besides the movies. Food and drinks seems like as good of an idea as any.

    For someone who so desperately wants to be put on a board (any board!) it’s surprising how consistently wrong Frank R is about everything.

  9. Somebody really wants to shut down the ACME. Why? The slow moment you may have caught them in last night notwithstanding, it’s a well-patronized store and the only source of groceries for a lot of us neighborhood folk who neither occupy the Kings tax bracket nor have the wheels to schlep all the way to the Brookdale ShopRite. Try visiting again on a Saturday morning/afternoon (but please leave the bowling ball at home).

  10. montclairskier,

    I’ve achieved perfection? You really think so? Thanks.
    You can use that imagination of yours to appreciate the constant burden I have maintaining it.

    NealT,
    Unfortunately, supermarkets run on tight retail margins that require a decent level of off-peak sales to make it work. Statistically, an average supermarket, on an average weekday, customer traffic at that time should be at 40-67% of their daily peak. I’m giving a generous range. Maybe it was just one of those nights. I stopped counting employees wondering around or at checkout, so they have not adjusted their staffing.

  11. “Leave your damn cars in the driveway and walk or ride a bike.”

    hgoldman77 is keeping it real. montclair has more than enough parking. if you cant walk or ride your bike than just take an uber or lyft.

  12. Can’t disagree with FR enough here. This isn’t a NEW development, but rather updating the usage and re-purposing an EXISTING building. Parking should not even be in this discussion. This is a key property that defines Upper Montclair and any effort to resurrect a viable use of it should be supported, even if some support directly from the town is needed. Perhaps FR can focus his rhetoric for new development in town, where his points could make a better argument. Not ALL development is bad, but there are clearly better targets of new development in town to focus on, rather than slamming the “reopening” of a 100 year old theater in the heart of the Upper Montclair business district.

  13. “This isn’t a NEW development, but rather updating the usage and re-purposing an EXISTING building.”
    see The Crosby
    “Parking should not even be in this discussion.”
    see The Crosby

    I always support smart development, but not any development for the sake of development to try and reclaim an activity from the past. Discounting a $1MM municipal asset to put two bar/restaurants on top of each other is silly. Listening to a redevelopment group that says it is not viable without a liquor license – one they can clearly afford, but are unwilling to buy? I would like to believe they will not do this rehab on the cheap, so I believe they are going for excess profits at the expense of the taxpayers. It doesn’t hurt to try, right?

    Wouldn’t it be better to put one down the road where there plenty of parking that precludes driving into the congested village center? As an incentive to achieve an expressed desire of the township to improve the crappy streetscape and where there is an adjacent high-density high-rise and garden apartments? Or, wild idea here, just let the marketplace decide what can be viable.

    You should deliberate on this a little more.

  14. FR, again, The Crosby is not a good comparison, the Bellevue is/was already a 1000+ seat theater, it will remain as such. The flip-side if it is not re-purposed as a theater, what to do with it? Tear it down and create more stores/restaurants/condo’s? That helps parking how? Your argument makes little to no sense. I agree parking is a problem, but I also know that there are many towns in this country that wish they had a parking problem. Many town business retail areas/malls in this country are hurting, we have the opportunity to resurrect a 100 year old theater with a vibrant/modern business model that will help to anchor the entire business area uptown. Ask all the business owners uptown what they think about reopening the theater, I think you know the answer.

  15. We’ll disagree on the Crosby. Any owner would not be allowed to demolish the building’s facade as it is protected. I want the space reused and a large format use doesn’t present a problem for me. It can have secondary uses of the space, but they should be complementary uses that have their prime parking demand at a different time, e.g. during the day. In this way, it would require less parking capacity because the parking use would be spread across the total day. So, have a theater or similar, but we shouldn’t be wedded to the idea only a liquor license will make it viable. Every developer has a plan B, or C, before they commit. Maybe the inexperience of this group didn’t.

  16. The township will collect rent on the property so it’s an income stream that doesn’t exist today. They’re not discounting an asset, they’re creating a new asset. (still batting 1.000 Frank!) They still have another license coming up for sale at market rate based on population increase. What’s that saying FR constantly misuses on here? “Can’t see the forest for the trees”. You have an existing use on the site as a theater. I would assume that adding a restaurant within the same footprint would reduce the total number of seats. It will probably have a lower parking demand than the currently approved (existing non conforming) use. But yes, let’s gut the interior to make apartments so we save a couple of parking spots. I had an architecture professor who had a good pet name for that kind of project: a facadomy. We can satisfy the technical requirements of the historic preservation ordinance while completely disconnecting the property from the historic fabric that makes it a noteworthy building in the first place. Brilliant “smart planning” from the town’s resident contrarian.

    The Crosby building was a feed store. It’s a completely new use with a much higher parking demand than the old use. Rascals becoming the Montclair Social Club is an apt comparison. Maybe we should have gutted it for some nail salons, they are daytime users, great for parking.

  17. First, the property owner will be the landlord & lessor. No change.
    The proposed plan is for the Township to be the leasee and sublet to the theater operator. The Township pays rent, then collects rent from the operator.

    Second, as the least viable use, I also assumed the theater seats would be reduced. However, theater parking requires 1 space for every 4 seats. A restaurant requires 1 space for every 3 seats. The bar portion requires 1 space for every 2 seats. So, the plan has to intensify the parking demand – even with generous variances.

    Third, you need to take a tour of the current space and its remaining interior historic fabric. I think you will be surprised at what is remaining.

    Fourth, I would rather see a millennial-type use like virtual reality entertainment, a mini-Chelsea Piers type of use or a use that is on the front-end of the growth curve. Actually, if we are going old school, and the Township is going to subsidize the costs, my first choice would be a children’s-oriented educational center like a planetarium. I’m sure a non-economic development contingent would like to use the liquor license revenue to locate a senior center there.

  18. PS: “Can’t see the forest for the trees” is not an expression I think I use a lot. You may be confusing me with Martin Schwartz. Happens all the time.

Comments are closed.