Baltimore Westside Superblock Developers Granted 3rd Extension Despite Ignoring Preservation Agreement

Baltimore Brew‘s  reports that the City BOE has granted a four month extension to the controversial West Side project, allowing more time to complete their financing and search for tenants, after M.J. Brodie  of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) stated headway was being made.  On the other hand it appears they ignored Johns Hopkins, executive director of the historic preservation group, Baltimore Heritage who says the “Superblock” developers have not been honoring an agreement on historic preservation.

Considering the recent concerns over the current condition of The Senator Theatre, the portion of the article regarding the planned restoration of Read’s Drug Store, the site of a 1955 Civil Rights sit-in, may be most interesting – and worrisome:

Separately, the city said it would proceed with installing a temporary roof on the Read’s building, whose interior timber framing has partially collapsed from years of water leakage.

The roof, however, is not expected to be installed until late spring or early summer, leading CHAP commissioner Larry Gibson to wonder whether the building itself might fall down. “Demolition by neglect is a specialty in this city,” he said.

An engineering consultant said that was unlikely because the steel beams and exterior masonry walls appeared to be in satisfactory condition. The temporary roof on the city-owned building would cost about $550,000.

Although the engineering consultant makes it sound like demolition is unlikely, it’s hard to ignore that the neglect led to Read’s roof collapse and it’s much more costly to reconstruct as opposed to preventative maintenance/repairs, especially when you’re talking about proper restoration to an historic structure.

The Senator Theatre, Dec. 12, 2011So, while it’s hoped that the City and The Senator’s current operators will see the wisdom of making an honest and visible effort to reverse the effects of deferred maintenance, once again, I encourage those who understand the significance of the internationally recognized Senator Theatre, the last historic, operational movie house in Baltimore City, to sign this online petition:

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/help-the-senator-theatre/

Let those in control that it’s not just a handful of “historic theatre nuts” (or “sore losers” as some of us have been labeled) who are disappointed with the year-long decline which can no longer be ignored. Former mayor/governor/state comptroller understood the importance of history and our historic buildings. Now the rest of us need to stand up, for the Senator and for Baltimore’s historic Westside.

-Tom Harris

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SENATOR Theatre RFP: CHAP Hearing on August 10

Friends of The Senator (FOTS) has been alerted to a hearing called by Baltimore City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) that will review the plans proposed by James “Buzz” Cusack (who rents & operator The Charles Theatre) and his daughter, Kathleen Cusack for renovations intended for the historic Senator Theatre.

Details from the August 10 Agenda via the CHAP web site:

3:00 PM Senator Theatre

(Baltimore City Landmark-Exterior)
(Baltimore City Landmark -Interior pending)
(CHAP Special List-Interior)
Plan: Rehabilitation of exterior and interior-Concept.
City of Baltimore, Owner.
The Senator Theatre, LLC. (James Cusack and Kathleen Cusack, principals), Lessee.

Eddie Leon, Staff Presenter.
The hearing will be held in the Phoebe Stanton Conference Room of the Department of Planning, 8th Floor, 417 E. Fayette Street.

We’re informed that anyone can view the plans in advance by making an appointment with the CHAP office.
(410) 396-4866
(410) 396-PLAN (7526)
Fax: (410) 396-5662

FOTS strongly encourages anyone concerned with the future of the theatre, particularly the planned renovations, to attend this hearing if possible.

Senator Theatre RFP: Kiefaber defies hush clause. Joins FOTS in “BDC is rife with fraud & collusion”

BDC

Fraud, Collusion, Deceit

Former Senator Theatre owner Tom Kiefaber defies City Hall’s hush clause

Joins Friends of The Senator to declare BDC is rife with fraud and collusion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Baltimore, MD
July 16th, 2010

Friends of The Senator (FOTS) announced today that the 2100+ member advocacy group has denounced the Baltimore Development Corporation’s (BDC) manipulation of The Senator Theatre’s acquisition at auction on behalf of the City, and its subsequent RFP plan for the Senator Theatre, as a corrupt process rife throughout with collusion, fraud, and deceit.

The advocacy group has repeatedly implored Mayor Rawlings-Blake to investigate the allegations, based on the results of the FOTS investigative research, provided to her and her staff…

Complete text at http://www.thepeoplestheatre.us/news.html

SENATOR Theatre RFP: No Plan Finalized but City orders theatre to go dark on July 21

SENATOR Theatre in the dark

City Orders Senator Theatre volunteers to "cease all operations on the 21st under any circumstance"

BALTIMORE, July 16 /PRNewswire/ — The Baltimore Mayor’s office announced yesterday that The Senator Theatre will go dark on July 21st. The announcement is a partial response to rising concerns of North Baltimore business owners, residents, and the 2100+ member “Friends of The Senator” theatre advocacy group, regardin…g the uncertain fate of The Senator Theatre, an iconic, nationally renowned landmark showplace that has entertained and served the North Baltimore community continuously since 1939….
Full press release at: http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/mayors-office-announces-baltimores-senator-theatre-must-go-dark-on-wednesday-july-21st-98589734.html

SENATOR Theatre RFP: Mayor wants “a period on that” while ignoring the real issues

WYPR - Midday with Dan Rodricks with Mayor Rawlings-BlakeAs stated by Dan Rodricks yesterday on WYPR’s Midday radio show, Baltimore City’s Mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has had to face a $121 million budget shortfall, problems  with a $65 million pension system for the city’s first responders and an $870,000 lawsuit settlement (dealing with zero tolerance police issues under then Mayor Martin O’Malley).

To deal with with these issues citizens and visitors face increased taxes and fees, while city employees face layoffs.

This kind of economic crunch is not just a problem in Baltimore, to be sure. But, given all this we have to question, more than ever, the administration’s wisdom regarding the historic Senator Theatre’s future.

  • On at least three occasions the input of historic theatre redevelopment experts have been refused and/or completely ignored – twice by the BDC and once by the mayor’s office!
  • The plan to be approved returns The Senator Theatre to a proven failed programming format. The same that many pointed to as leading to the theatre’s foreclosure last year: first run movies
  • On top of the nearly $1 million already invested by Baltimore City to acquire The Senator at foreclosure, the “winning” plan is expected to request in upwards of $1 million in additional taxpayer moneyall going to a private business, not a non-profit.
    A bargain for sure for the Cusack’s, but a significant financial risk for Baltimore City!

We’ve advocated for over a year (and it should be noted that Mr. Kiefaber, former owner of the theatre, even longer) that The Senator’s best chance to return to its role as an economic engine for North Baltimore is to be handed over to a non-profit organization who can raise funds (from more sources available than private business), can draw on expertise to operate this internationally recognized landmark as a multipurpose venue with a variety of programming that will bring a wider, diversified audience to the area.

Keeping that all this in mind, consider the following exchange between WYPR’s Midday host, Dan Rodricks and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake from yesterday’s program (FOTS Editors’ notes have been entered at key points):

Rodricks: Here’s another question about economic development from Laura:

“The Baltimore Development Corporation recently announced that you approved the agency’s selection of The Charles Theatre operator to take over The Senator Theatre. Do you in fact endorse that plan of action? If so, how do you justify the taxpayer’s investment of a million dollars, so far, in acquiring this historic venue?”
[Ed. note: We now know that the second half of this question was not even presented, because it asked about the additional taxpayer funding the plan expects to receive]

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake:

“I don’t know in my time on the council…to being Mayor, there’s been an economic development project that  I have received more emails about than The Senator Theatre. It was a very complete process.
[Ed. note:  To the contrary. Expert input was ignored several times, even by the mayor’s senior staff!]
It was a transparent, open process.
[Ed: Records used by the BDC have not been released to the public, because it would prove they ignored expert input and questions concerning Robert Embry and Jay Brodie’s meeting with Towson University’s president just before WTMD withdrew from contention.
Additionally, the mayor’s office ignored a free consultation offered by an award-winning historic theatre redevelopment expert! FOTS leaders personally provided the contact information to the mayor and her senior staff in a face-to-face meeting  in early May where we were assured they would take advantage of the offer before making a decision]

“Uhm, Mr. Cusack had the winning proposal and we’re moving forward.
[Ed: Incorrect. His was the last remaining proposal – there is a huge difference! At that point, on our opinion, the RFP should have been restarted. Not only because we should not settle for “what’s left”, but because the plan did not stand up to expert scrutiny!]

I think there are so many people who have an emotional attachment and uh, are probably friendly with Mr. Kiefaber and want him to keep it no matter what.
[Ed: Yes. Because they care about The Senator and its future in the community. Any friendship with the former owner is irrelevant and was not our message. Nor was it from the hundreds we heard from who sent the emails. The overall driving message was that hands-on historical redevelopment expertise should be utilized to guide the whole process!]

But, that’s just not possible and we’ve certainly, uh,  danced that dance under very many administrations and now, you know, you and I talked about putting a period at that law suit, we’re putting a period on that relationship and moving forward. And I’m very encouraged.”
[Ed: Putting “a period” on the relationship with Kiefaber is not the point.
We sincerely wish officials AND the media stop making Kiefaber the crux of the argument! Focus on the TRUE issue: The viable, sustainable future of The Senator Theatre and what it could mean to the North Baltimore community!]

Rodricks: With all those emails you mentioned, did anyone express lack of support investing in The Senator?

Mayor: Mmmm…

Rodricks: Or was most of the mail suggestions on who should be running it? How it should be operated?
[Ed: Yes, indeed, many did, particularly those from FOTS members! Non-profit, multipurpose, arts, education, entertainment (including, but not exclusively movies)…]

Mayor: Suggestions on how to keep mr. Kiefaber there.
[Ed: Have to admit here our patience with this nonsense is really tested]

Rodricks: In place.

Mayor: Right, Yeah.

Sorry madam mayor. Either you weren’t given all of the incoming emails or we have to think that you are not truly representing the sentiments of the vast majority that were sent in.

The bottom line is that this issue is not about keeping Tom Kiefaber in The Senator Theatre.
The issues ARE about accountability of government (and pseudo-government) officials and transparency to the public in their dealings. Especially when spending taxpayer money on deals that are not in the best interest of those taxpayers.

Listen to the show for yourself: WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks – June 28, 2010

SENATOR Theatre RFP: If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention!

Friends of The Senator and Citizens of Baltimore,

The bottom line in this, folks, is to help you understand that the city may take a considerable amount of your tax dollars and hand it to private business to use in a failed business model.

Does that sound like a “Get In On It” deal?

If that doesn’t make you angry right off, read on because you should know about a situation where Baltimore City government may approve a plan presented by the BDC that gives nearly three-quarters of a $1 million to a private business and the keys to the historic Senator Theatre for a $1 per year lease.

Sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it?… Especially in these times, but it is not!

Taxpayers in a city facing proposed cuts to essential and emergency services expected to write checks amounting to $700,000 to the private business owners of The Charles Theatre.

  1. $100,000 grant – money that will never be repaid to the city coffers
  2. $600,000 loan (2% for 20 yrs)

We’re talking about an historic landmark in which the city already has invested approximately $1 million!

Think about it. They’re proposing going further into the hole, with taxpayer dollars, heading toward the $2 million mark in hopes the Cusacks can make the theatre viable and self-sustaining…

AND, considering the city will remain the landord, the building will be off the tax rolls and the city coffers will only get a cut IF the theatre is able to generate over $2 million per year – and even at that only 5%.

“In our dreams we would like to see that, but I don’t think we put much weight in that” coming to fruition, [Debra] Devan said.” (BDC Board Member in Balto. Sun)

Some of you are thinking, “Okay, well maybe they can pull it off, The Charles shows cool things and the owner has good industry connections”, consider the following:

  • The proposed bold, new revenue-generating format?… Not the art or classic films fans of The Charles know and love, but a continuation of 1st-run blockbuster features (Just like former-owner Tom Kiefaber used to do! You remember him – the guy who always got criticized for this?)
    Can we see a show of hands that believe this will draw any more people this time around?…
    And let’s be clear here, those of you who WANT 1st-run pictures back at The Senator, put your hands down. We count ourselves among those who miss 1st run films at The Senator, but this is about viability, people!
  • The man behind the plan doesn’t even sound very confident about the venture
    “Maybe it doesn’t work.” – James “Buzz” Cusack, Charles Theatre owner in MD Daily Record
  • Perhaps there are reasons for that
    • At the Senator RFP Public Meeting last fall an attendee asked Cusack if he could cite anyplace else in the country where his plan has worked. His response? “No.”
    • At the same meeting another asked, given the fact that the majority of historic redevelopment experts state the best chance of survival of theatres like The Senator are for them to become multipurpose arts, education & entertainment venues owned by non-profits, why he thought his plan would work – the response was, “I don’t know”.
    • Clearance. Something that, particularly independent theatre owners, have had to deal with quite some time.
      When a film Cusack has at The Senator has declining ticket sales he can be blocked from moving it down to The Charles by the Landmark Theatres downtown, because of their proximity. This means the movie is stuck at The Senator and the owner loses considerable money without a fresh attraction.

SENATOR Lobby b&wIf handing over all that public money to a business that is likely not to succeed hasn’t already teed you off, consider the fact that the plan also includes demolition of portions of the walls of the iconic circular outer lobby and the mens’ and ladies’ lounges and restrooms? These are distinct historical/architectural features Cusack proposes to destroy in the city’s $1 million – $1.7 million investmentMr. Cusack sits on the board of the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation. Ironic, isn’t it?

We strongly encourage you to let Mayor Rawlings-Blake (or use our letter), Comptroller Joan Pratt and the Board of Estimates know how you feel on this issue!


SENATOR Theatre RFP: BDC Goes with “Last Man Standing” logic

Even though experts have stated that historic theatres, like Baltimore’s internationally recognized SENATOR Theatre, have the best chance of survival as non-profit, multi-purpose arts & entertainment venues, the Baltimore Business Journal & Baltimore Sun report that the BDC will recommend The Cusack plan to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

This is a plan that turns ownership over to privately-ownership continuing the same format the previous owner came under criticism by many for maintaining, that of a first-run movie house.

On top of that, according to the BBJ, the Cusacks plan to ask the city for a $100,000 grant and $600,000 loan – again, something critics claimed (many times incorrectly) that the former owner was guilty – asking for public funds to run a private business!

Cusack also asked for a $100,000 grant from the city and another $600,000 loan, funds he would use to renovate the structure.

So, does this make sense to anyone?
Public subsidy of a private business
(more than former owner Tom Kiefaber received?!)
to continue the same format as the previous owner?…

It’s said the mayor and the Board of Estimates will have to approve the recommendation before final negotiations can happen.

Now more than ever you should make your voice heard to the Mayor’s Office about this situation.

So, join those who have sent letters to the mayor about a proper evaluation of plans for the future of the theatre, like:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

The Theatre Historical Society of America

Baltimore Heritage, Inc.

Preservation Maryland

SENATOR Theatre RFP: So, what will it be, BDC?!

Last we heard the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) could be planning to make a recommendation on the future of The Senator Theatre as early as this Thursday, April 22, 2010 to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Given that WTMD suddenly withdrew their plan, the question hanging in the air is:

Will the BDC see sense and restart the process with hands-on guidance from historic theatre preservation and exhibition experts
or
will they try to sell the mayor on the remaining plan simply because, right now, that’s all they have left on the table?

Brief review of the situation:

SENATOR Theatre RFP: BDC denies FOTS request to release theatre expert’s response

FOTS has been advocating for more than a year that a successful future for The Senator required heeding the advice of historic theatre redevelopment experts, like John Lind of Venuetech. When FOTS was invited to send a representative to the BDC Advisory Panel we were optimistic that the BDC had taken this to heart and the process would include hands-on guidance from such experts.

However, FOTS representative, Laura Perkins soon found that while the BDC eventually did reach out to the League of  Historic American Theatres (LHAT) for input, it was only to send a brief list of questions to two members, not ask for interactive, hands-on participation.

Yes, TWO LHAT experts… This does not include historic building rehab expert Marty Azola.

One is John Bell, CEO of Florida’s famed historic Tampa Theatre whose responses to questions posed by the BDC (via email) were answered and distributed to Advisory Panel members. It is our understanding that Mr. Bell was never allowed to review the proposals, but had very definite opinions about what works and does not work when it comes to historic theatres like The Senator. But, what were Bell’s opinions?

Tom Harris, FOTS president, requested the release of John Bell’s expert assessment of the only remaining RFP on the table. He noted that it would be understood if references to respondents’ financial data, if any were present, would first have to be removed. However, the BDC leadership still denied this request for reasons of “confidentiality”.

Appearances are then, at the BDC secrecy for a specific purpose is termed “confidentiality”.

The responses from the second as yet unnamed LHAT board member (which we only recently learned existed) apparently were NEVER given to the Advisory Panel members. Our understanding is that these included evaluations so scathing in their professional feasibility assessments that BDC leaders decided not to share them with the panel.

Balto. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

It is therefore FOTS opinion that witholding expert input from the panel and, moreover, from the public displays alarming violations of proper procedure, transparency and the public trust in a situation where over a million dollars of taxpayer funds have been invested thus far. More examples of how The Senator RFP process is in shambles and why it is imperative that Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s administration steps in immediately.

Stay tuned as the situation evolves.

SENATOR Theatre RFP: WTMD Withdraws – FOTS Response

Yes, WTMD/Towson University has withdrawn their bid for The Senator RFP.
We thank TU’s Assistant to the President for External Relations and Communications, Marina Cooper for the courtesy of informing FOTS before the announcement was reported by the media.

What follows is our response to this announcement:

The Friends of The Senator (FOTS) group and historic theatre preservation organizations nationwide are aligned in their stance that the BDC’s Senator RFP process has been fundamentally flawed from its inception, and the situation must be rectified.

Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Theatre Historical Society of America, among others, have written to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, citing concern over the BDC’s failure to engage professional historic theatre redevelopment experts to play an active role in the advance planning and guidence of the Senator RFP redevelopment process.

Towson University’s withdrawal is sudden, but not entirely unexpected. With the BDC’s controversial Senator RFP process in a shambles, it’s time to heed the rising call for Baltimore City to apply proven national standards established by historic theatre redevelopment experts to determine an optimal future for Baltimore’s renowned and irreplaceable Senator Theatre.

Thomas Harris
President, FOTS