Garden Cultivation | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Garden Cultivation

The planned renovation of the North Side's Garden Theatre doesn't necessarily mean that the North Avenue structure has a future as an actual theater.

On July 19, about 250 people packed into the nearby Children's Museum's auditorium to hear from four developers on their proposals for the block. Two of the four developers favor saving the building's historic façade and lobby while demolishing part or all of the actual theater auditorium in favor of on-site parking, and three of the four have no intention of using the 12,550-square-foot building as a cinema.

The Garden was a longtime porn cinema which has stood vacant since 2007, when the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority seized it via eminent domain. It is positioned at the center of North Avenue, and its length spans the entire block. Nine other buildings and two smaller vacant lots comprise the rest of the project.

The presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session that involved specifics on units of housing, financing and what to do about parking, regardless of the site's use.

"You can't deny the burden that people put on a site, from a car standpoint," says Ken Doyno, principal architect of Pittsburgh-based Rothschild Doyno Collaborative. RDC is not involved in the Garden Theatre block, but recently built housing two blocks away on Federal Street. Also, unlike in years past, Donyo says, "there is not a high demand for more movie space, and that [auditorium] takes up a lot of land."

Local film aficionado Aaron Stubna, in fact, was the only presenter to suggest that the Garden resume operations as a movie theater. His presentation was for the theater only.

Stubna outlined plans for an art-house lounge, called the Garden Film Center, that would serve high-end food and drinks, and offer a variety of art- and film-related programming. But even he says the plan is risky.

"Only a fool would invest in a one-screen theater," Stubna said. But he believes the amenities he proposes would distinguish it from other local independent cinemas. "There will be no competition," he says.

A five-minute walk from the Garden Theatre is the New Hazlett Theater, a nonprofit venue for live theater, music and other performances. Executive Director Sara Radelet has worked in the neighborhood for 20 years, and has participated in past efforts to revitalize the Garden.

While Radelet is optimistic about the current plans, she cautions that in a city with a population at half of its former size, you have to be willing to "work 24 hours a day" to make a theater work here. And "no," she says, agreeing with Stubna, "You can't make money at it."

A second plan, submitted by Ron and Julie Wells, of Spokane, Wash.-based Wells & Company, is also an arts-based initiative. It calls for keeping the auditorium and finding an arts-based tenant. But it also incorporates a restaurant/brew pub as well as using the site for apartments and other housing.

But the site's other proposed developers are thinking the Garden's future is not in films or the arts, but in a mixed-use retail/housing development with on-site parking.

Bill Barron, a Pittsburgh-based developer who renovated a neighboring structure into a coffee shop last year, wants to use the theater lobby and façade for a restaurant, with the rest of the complex devoted to housing. He plans to demolish the auditorium and create up to 43 parking spaces. This would provide one space for each proposed unit of housing.

Kirk Burkley, president of Northside Tomorrow, LLC, who is managing the redevelopment process for the URA, said flatly that none of the developers are proposing to tear down the Garden Theater; keeping the theater is a requirement.

But retaining the façade and lobby doesn't mean keeping a cinema. Wayne Zukin, of Philadelphia-based Zukin Realty, also wants the auditorium gone and envisions a 10,000-square-foot grocery-store reuse incorporating the theater's large lobby space. While Zukin hasn't narrowed down a tenant, he says renovation of the remaining buildings into apartments could begin as soon as the permits are issued.

Whether it is a theater, a grocery store or a restaurant, Burkley says his organization doesn't necessarily have a preference for a particular type of programming. Still, he says, "Whatever goes in there has to actually work."

Burkley's organization is optimistic that the project will indeed bring the block back to life. Having competing ideas for an area that needs many is a good start, Burkley told the assembled group, adding, "this is a good problem to have."