Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

UPDATED: BDC Receives Proposals for Senator RFP

A press release from the BDC lists the 4 responses they got to The Senator RFP:

1. The Lofts at The Senator proposal from J.R. Owen, which calls for 3 stories of apartments and associated parking to be built, along with a renovation of the theatre. No details were given in the press release of the extent of the renovation or the operation model for the theatre.

I'm fairly sure my neighbors in the immediate area are not going to like this proposal. I would bet there will be significant opposition to concentrated new housing going in right there, not to mention the parking garage.

2. Proposal from Buzz Cusack, owner of the Charles Theater to expand The Senator along Rosebank Avenue.

I happen to know, because I was at The Senator when Cusack's team toured the theatre and I overheard things, that this proposal also entails turning the Men's and Ladies' lounges and restrooms into restaurants. There will be a creperie in the crapper, henceforth to be known as the Craperie. The men's lounge/restroom will apparently be a tapas restaurant.

Folks, The Senator is a significant historic building on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the finest examples of a theatre designed by famous architect John Zink. To put restaurants into the lounge/restroom areas, which are significant parts of the design in terms of the male/female symbolism built into them, is butchery of the historic building as far as I'm concerned. This needs to be stopped. Totally unacceptable mutilation of the building.

If you've been following my blog, you also know that Buzz Cusack has conflicts of interest here. He sits on the CHAP commission which imposed restrictions on the interior spaces of the building just before the City's auction of the building, helping to depress the sale price. Also, the film clearance policy at the Charles has negatively impacted The Senator over the years and greatly contributed to the financial troubles The Senator has had.

Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry also sits on the CHAP commission, along with Cusack, and was reportedly the one pushing for the CHAP restrictions on the interior of The Senator (which don't seem to be strong enough to prevent the Craperie). It's interesting to note, then, that a few years ago, the Abell Foundation was looking at funding the expansions of both The Senator and the Charles, but in the end, they only expanded the Charles, giving it a significant competitive advantage over The Senator.

Anyone who attended a town hall, hosted by Marc Steiner and the SCT at The Senator earlier this year, may also remember that the lady that owns Sofi's Crepes, next to the Charles Theater, made a comment during the question and answer period that was basically a complaint that if her business was in trouble, she wouldn't ask for help from taxpayers. Of course, comparing her business to a significant historic landmark is ludicrous, as was pointed out by Sean Brescia, who was helping to host the town hall. Marc Steiner, however, shot Mr. Brescia down and accused him of being rude to the crepe lady. At least some of the public bought into it, judging by comments I heard later. I wonder if these members of the public would have reacted differently if they understood that the crepe lady had a financial interest in seeing The Senator taken from Tom Kiefaber, since she now may be able to expand her business to The Senator if Mr. Cusack's RFP is approved.

The Senator can and should be an economic anchor for the local business district, drawing people to the area and putting patrons into local businesses. The BDC acknowledges that. So let's think about that for a second. Do we want to encourage people to patronize the local restaurants? Or do we want The Senator to compete with the local restaurants? It seems to me that two restaurants in The Senator would not help the local restaurants in any way.

Buzz Cusack's business practices and the CHAP commission on which he sits have contributed to reasons The Senator was recently taken from the family that built it. The fact that he would even submit a proposal is, frankly, predatory. Combine that distasteful situation with the idea of eating craps (I mean crepes!) out of the former bathroom, and there are many reasons to dislike this proposal already.

There was, I thought, one aspect of this proposal that I might have liked, if it were done correctly (and I'd have to see the full proposal, but I now understand Buzz doesn't plan to do it correctly). It was my understanding, until I got more information, that this proposal expanded The Senator along the Rosebank side into the triangle area behind the theatre, to add at least one additional auditorium. If that were true, this would be one aspect of the proposal that would be probably fine, but only if the plan did not encroach on the existing auditorium.

Tom Kiefaber has had architectural drawings done in the past to build additional auditoriums on the side of the building, without changing the original auditorium. At one time, I believe he had the permits to expand in this way.

It's basically impossible to run a single-screen theatre profitably, at least if it has a first-run film policy. Most historic theatres that have been successful have added auditoriums. Here's a note to my neighbors who think they want first-run movies at The Senator: if The Senator goes back to a film-only operation model, it's going to need to be expanded. You can't say you want first-run films at The Senator, but you don't want it to expand. The two positions are mutually exclusive.

UPDATE: Buzz Cusack apparently doesn't just plan to add an additional auditorium along Rosebank Ave, as I had hoped. Apparently, he plans to butcher the original auditorium, dividing it in two. Here's the quote from the Daily Record:

“When you have another screen, you have more flexibility,” Kathleen Cusack said. “If you have a second screen and you have a movie that isn’t making a lot of money, you can move it there and put something else on the main screen.”


If the Cusacks add a 120-seat theater to the Senator, the main auditorium would shrink from 940 seats to 760. Cusack said the smaller theater could be used as an arts education area.

This is wrong and must not be allowed to happen.

3. The Theatre Project PUPKIDS, Inc. - Proposal to have mixed entertainment uses at The Senator, including a puppet theatre. There is no mention in the BDC's press release that this RFP includes any renovation component. I would be surprised if it does, since I spoke to the gentleman, Enoch Cook III, who put in this proposal at the pre-proposal conference at The Senator, and he did not appear to be well-funded at the time. Of course, it's always possible he has obtained financing since then.

4. WTMD at The Senator - Proposal from Towson University's WTMD radio station. (UPDATE: A blog post from WTMD lists a few more details.) Mentions renovation and expansion of The Senator. I would like to see the plan to see if the renovation is sufficient and if the plan is sensitive to the historic nature of the building.

By the way, does anyone else notice that Stephen Yasko's description of WTMD's proposal sounds like a blatant rip-off of exactly what Tom Kiefaber has been publicly proposing, and what The Senator has been doing recently? So what's wrong with this picture? Perhaps it's that Tom and his staff, who made The Senator the nationally renowned theatre that it is today, have been excluded from the process.

The Sun Paper mentioned that developer David Cordish submitted a proposal, but this does not seem to be the case.

It remains to be seen whether the details of any of these proposals will provide sufficient funds and preservation know-how to restore the historic building as it should be restored. If not, it would be missing a golden opportunity to ensure The Senator's preservation for future generations if Baltimore City were to go forward with any proposal that is inferior to what should be required.

The Senator is now the People's Theater, owned by the citizens of Baltimore City. We deserve to have our city government respect this important historic landmark and beloved local attraction and ensure its preservation in perpetuity. Time must be allowed for a study to be done of what the theatre and the surrounding area really need, historic theatre and preservation experts must be consulted, and a community-based non-profit ownership approach to the theatre's future must be incubated, as has been done so successfully in other communities. We shouldn't allow public property to be dealt off to private developers without ensuring that the public's interests and the historic nature of the building are being respected.

P.S. I want to be clear that all of the above is my personal opinion, and does not in any way represent Friends of The Senator or The Senator.

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