HPC Reviews Plans For Montclair’s Bellevue Theater, Pushes Back on Proposal to Move Entryway

Movie lovers in Montclair got an early holiday present at the December 10 Montclair Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting—a preview of the next installment of the Bellevue theater saga. Like your favorite Hollywood movie, there were moments to cheer about, but HPC pushed back on one component of the proposed plan.

The team that presented included Steven Plofker and Paul Sionas, AIA; movie star Patrick Wilson, one of the partners behind the new Bellevue Montclair, also attended the meeting. Their plan called for a total of six theaters screening both studio and indie flicks, a lounge/bar and a restaurant. According to the proposal, the first floor would feature three movie theaters and a lounge/bar. In good weather there would be additional seating for lounge/bar patrons just outside the theater by the west-facing facade. A restaurant would be on the second floor. The third floor would accommodate three movie theaters. An elevator and other barrier-free components would help ensure the renovated theater complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In its 95-year history as a functioning movie theater, the Bellevue included amenities such as 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.

Highgate Hall, the original dining room in the historic Bellevue Theater.

The renovation includes wider seats and bigger screens in the theaters. That would reduce the capacity of the venue to 485 seats. The old Bellevue theater, which closed in November 2017, had four theaters that could accommodate 885 moviegoers.

Plofker and Sionas reviewed other components of the renovation which include raising the height of the building by about 13 feet to help accommodate the larger screens and comply with the ADA. The proposal also called for moving the entrance to the building further east. That would create a better configuration for the first floor so moviegoers wouldn’t have to use the lounge/bar to access the theaters.

Eastern facade of Bellevue Theater

“We struggled with it, but realized we needed a large enough space to have a meaningful income generator in the bar, restaurant, lounge,” said Plofker.

“We wanted to bring families with children in without them walking past the bar, that’s why we separated the theater entry from the bar,” added Sionas.

One member of the HPC said he felt moving the entry was problematic. Overall, the commission found the rehabilitation of the property appears to be minimal to the building’s characteristics and the rear enlargement does not change the character of the building. HPC recommended the developers:

  • Review the central bay (marquee) storefront so it’s similar to the style of the original rendering of the building
  • Maintain pedestrian access to the covered canopies at the eastern façade
  • Incorporate an art installation or other visual pieces on the eastern façade
  • Add some type of visual relief to the auditorium addition at the top of the building

Plfoker said his team would work on the plan in light of the HPC’s comments. Next steps for the renovation include meeting with the Montclair Board of Adjustments then meeting again with the HPC.

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  1. “We wanted to bring families with children in without them walking past the bar, that’s why we separated the theater entry from the bar,” added Sionas.

    Yes, the families (they come with children?) will enter and be safely ensconced in their seats…and then they will try to leave…and needlessly risk life and limb. Of course, this is after they dutifully fulfilled their income generation role. I just hope the venue’s safety issues doesn’t detract from the Mtc Film Festival’s aura.

    FWIW, the preservation efforts look nice. Of course, the marque is stupid. I think the applicant knows it is problematic. Still, the HPC should have had a little more backbone. It’s been a long year for the HPC and I think they are just gassed.

  2. It’s great that the building will be preserved. Preserving a building requires updates to make it functional. This team does great work.

  3. Very poor argument. Your bias is showing.
    Your form follows functional update argument actually:

    1.) supports my case for eliminating the Historic Preservation Commission. They have become irrelevant.

    2.) is a standard that will not be allowed for property owners to use in the Oakcroft and Wheeler proposed historic districts. That is unfair.

    My biggest issue is that the proposed design will increase the danger to pedestrians – of all ages. If that is good work, then there is no middle ground here.

    I have been making the call outs throughout this month…before the real hearing evens begins!

    It will be interesting to see how the Zoning Board’s handling of 334 North Mountain application compared to the issues in this one.

  4. frankgg,

    Montclair is actually at the forefront of an emerging historic preservation movement. It is defined by two main tenets.

    First, reestablishing the rights of property owners over intrusive government zoning. Historic preservation ordinances are zoning laws.

    Second, preservation presumes new expansion of the premises and therefore the bar for granting variances is set much, much lower. Actually, the bar is more of a tripwire that everyone has to just step over. As long as the rehabilitation looks historic or pays “homage to its historicism”, then the granting of variances is akin paying a tribute to the property owner.

    Basically, it is a shift from the stick to a carrot approach that assumes most people will do mostly the right thing most of the time. Basically, what it means to be human. And there is always forgiveness and new history to be made.

  5. Yes I believe what you are correct about Montclair’s approach to Historic Preservation, Frank. Happy New Year!

  6. Frank, Your whole arguement appears to be that the proposed movie theater/lounge will create a life saftey hazard for pedestrians? Huh? Exactly how will be plan create this hazard? Are you aware that there was formerly a movie theater on the site? And that the proposed plan signifigantly reduces both the seat count and parking requirements? Maybe you have knowledge that the location has a history of pedestrian accidents? Please clarify.

  7. Yes, my primary concern is pedestrian safety. I’m simply asking the Zoning Board to step back and objectively assess this very high density of uses and the circulation of both patrons of the site and the existing pedestrian traffic. They need to recognize the likely high % minors, those with disabilities, and existing poor sight lines that create increased conflicts with vehicles. Further, acknowledge the new factor of serving moviegoers alcohol during the shows.

    The plan, without conditions set by the Zoning Board, continues the previous hazard of queuing patrons (of all ages) down the side of the theater along the very narrow access road to the parking lot. See the Eastern Facade photo above – although it doesn’t show the egress door further down.

    The theater’s 6 screens (490 patrons) all share an egress doorway directly adjacent to the access road. The doorways open out, partially blocking the narrow sidewalk. The only ADA pedestrian access to/from the Upper Montclair parking plaza is along this narrow sidewalk.

    The main entrance will now be a shorter distance to the intersection with Bellevue Ave. The applicant has acknowledged the marquee corner over the sidewalk is subject to being struck by turning box trucks, but no one recognized this same risk to pedestrians waiting on line here.

    One very obvious solution to mitigate – one that meets the developers requirements to 1) separate the theater clientele from the bar/restaurants’s, 2) create an efficient bar layout – is to move the theater entrance to the Western facade in place of the small proposed outdoor dining alley (with the stupid fence).

    Believe it or not, there is a rational (multiple reasons) for why we prohibit movie theaters in Neighborhood Commercial districts as this. One is parking. This theater was allowed because, years prior to the 1922 theater, the Town created the 200 space Bellevue parking Plaza. This was prior to the Masonic Lodge (William’s-Sonoma Bldg), prior to the build-out we have now and going forward. Of course, the Bellevue Parking Plaza is also now down to 118 spaces.

    A historical fyi: the 50 ½’ tall, 3-story Masonic Lodge mixed use was allowed because it was an architectural gem on all four sides. Now, it’s height has been turned against itself to house a cell tower farm. And this bldg is what the applicant and our Historic Preservation Commission is using as a point of justification for a new, 52′ tall roof (with mechanicals above)! I know nothing about such matters, but if the theater will be higher and quite massive, do you wonder when he cell towers will migrate down the block and adorn the theater’s parapets?

    Again, my primary concern is pedestrian safety. These other matters will work themselves out when they build the eventual parking deck.

  8. And that the proposed plan signifigantly reduces both the seat count and parking requirements?

    It reduces the parking requirements by 23% from 236* to 181* spaces. More importantly, the previous 900 or so patrons could not get a drink served to them. Now, up to 630 patrons can.

    * indicates corrected figures

  9. As I suspected, you are clearly opposed to the theater proposal, masking your negativity behind silly comments about pedestrian safety. You pretend that the existing theater doesn’t exist, and the proper standard should be comparing the proposal to the approved uses for zone, ignoring the 100 year successful use of the site for mutiple theaters, stores, and even a second floor restaurant. I am unaware of any pedestrian or “sight line” issues with the past uses, and traffic on Bellevue Avenue is lower volume (and moves slower) than the streets hosting many of our other liquor licenses (Bloomfield Ave, Park Street, etc.). I, for one, would much prefer the antennas on the theater roof, as they greatly detract from the beauty of the Masonic Lodge. I hope, for the town and theater’s sake, you don’t prevail in defeating the proposal.

  10. No, I am not! My preference is not to grant the height variance and they can still have an appropriate size theater with 4 screens (350 patrons)’ a bar and a restaurant. But, that is just a preference. Considering the investors influence in this town, this application will be approved. The Board’s recent vote on 334 North Mountain also indicates the prevailing mindset of half the members.

    I do care about pedestrian safety, and as I suspected, you are indifferent to the issue or are unable to comprehend the issue. What I am intent on is the Zoning Board and the applicant mitigating the hazard. I’m asking for conditions to be set to actively preclude queuing there and moving the entrance. Why is the proposed new entrance so important compared to the risk?

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