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:

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


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


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


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

No Approved Cusack Contract, but City Lawyer Tells Kiefaber & Volunteers: Get Out By Sunday!

Following an article published by the Daily Record on Monday (6/21), Michael Sragow just published a piece called, “City wants Kiefaber out of Senator Theatre by Sunday“, based on a letter written by The Senator’s former owner, Tom Kiefaber, in response to City Solicitor, Larry Jenkin’s notification that Kiefaber must vacate the theatre by June 27, 2010.

Now, even if you don’t (or don’t want to try) to understand the complex situations that led up to this point, consider these points:

  • Kiefaber was asked by the BDC to keep the lights on, the doors open and events taking place at The Senator Theatre while the RFP process continued.
  • While the BDC claims Mayor Rawlings-Blake has endorsed their recommended plan (although, now that I think of it, we’ve not seen or heard her quoted as stating such), that simply means that the process enters into an “exclusive negotiation” phase wherein the city and the proposed lessees (Buzz and Kathleen Cusack) hash out the proposal in order to write a contract that then has to be approved by Baltimore City’s Board of Estimates… So, at this time NO SIGNED CONTRACT EXISTS.
  • If the purpose to remove Kiefaber (and FOTS’ volunteer staff) by Sunday is to allow the Cusack’s to take over at the end of June, shouldn’t this raise red flags?
    Think about it – would any sane landlord allow tenants to move in without a signed contractual agreement?
  • Kiefaber, as asked, has continued to schedule events – including the much anticipated new Twilight movie, “Eclipse” which is scheduled to begin showings at The Senator at 12:01 am on June 30.

So, what’s the rush?! Read Tom Kiefaber’s open letter to the Special Chief Solicitor for yourself and you may get some ideas.

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: 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
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: Baltimore Heritage, Inc. Echoes Call for Experts in Letter to Mayor Rawlings-Blake

Adam Meister has broken news that a letter signed by Baltimore Heritage‘s Executive Director, Johns Hopkins, has been sent to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

In the letter, dated March 11, 2010, Mr. Hopkins states:

The Senator Theatre is a recent example of where the lack of preservation perspective is ham-stringing the BDC. Letters to you from the Theatre Historical Society of America and the Friends of The Senator Theatre request that the city add someone with experience in redeveloping historic theatres to the review panel that will decide on the competing proposals. We support these requests and concur that someone with preservation and historic theatre experience is a necessary component to review proposals for this historic landmark.

It further explains that previous BDC projects such as the West Side “Superblock” development has suffered from a similar lack of expertise:

The Superblock is another ongoing example of where the BDC would benefit from having a board member with historic preservation experience. For too long this critical area downtown has languished as proposals have ignored the preservation requirements for the site and its redevelopment potential based on preserving the historic buildings.

We encourage everyone interested to read the entire letter (PDF format), click the following link:

We also encourage everyone to join the growing call on City Hall to ensure that the decision regarding our internationally recognized historic landmark is properly evaluated by (appropriate experts) and transparent one.
Add your voice by contacting the Office of The Mayor yourself!

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Mayor
City Hall, Room 250
100 N. Holliday Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
Phone (410) 396-3835
Fax (410) 576-9425
Email the Mayor
use our ready-made form letter!

SENATOR Theatre RFP: Theatre Historical Society of America Pres. Clarifies Position

Karen Colizzi Noonan, Theatre Historical Society of America‘s (THSA) commented today on Adam Meister’s article clarifying her position both regarding her letter to Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her experience serving on the BDC’s Senator Advisory Panel.

Initially, it seemed like my scope of knowledge would be sufficient. When the discussion surpassed my expertise I suggested that the board contact the League of Historic American Theatres. The BDC immediately contacted them and the League worked to connect them with one of their association members.

More importantly, my reason for stepping off the BDC committee was primarily because of my physical location in New York state. I participated in the initial 4 hour meeting by phone which was enlightening and productive. As you might imagine, it is extremely difficult to truly contribute by remote access. I felt that someone physically sitting at the table would be of more benefit to the deliberations. I remain committed to the respectful reuse of the Senator Theater and wish the City of Baltimore and the Senator Theater a successful outcome.

Added shortly thereafter:

Apparently one further point of clarification is necessary.

In case there is any doubt – I do not believe that there has been sufficient ONGOING dialogue with a recognized historic THEATER expert in this process.

In my letter to the Mayor, I clearly state that:

” … I implore you as a matter of responsible stewardship, to include an experienced, knowledgeable historic preservation expert with specific expertise in theater preservation, on the BDC panel charged with deciding the Senator’s future.

The BDC has already reached out to the League of Historic American Theaters, located in Baltimore, to supply written input. It is imperative that such an expert physically sits on the commission and has the opportunity to give on-going guidance and consultation as part of the deliberations.”

We thank Karen Colizzi Noonan for her courage and forthrightness in her stand on this issue.

Again, if the RFP evaluation is carried out properly, with appropriate expertise and transparency, in the end there should be little reason for argument about the decision.

SENATOR Theatre RFP: Theatre Historical Society Rep’s Letter to Mayor Rawlings-Blake

On the heels of our letters to Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, another of the BDC’s Senator Advisory Panel members has also written the mayor.

Below is a copy of the letter, written by Karen Colizzi Noonan, President of the Theatre Historical Society of America.

February 27, 2010

Honorable Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Mayor, City of Baltimore
100 N. Holliday Street Room 250
Baltimore, Maryland 21202

Dear Mayor Rawlings-Blake:

As President of Theatre Historical Society of America, I write to you today to convey my unconditional support for the careful and considered reuse of the Senator Theatre, one of America’s most recognizable historic theaters.

Further, I implore you as a matter of responsible stewardship, to include an experienced, knowledgeable historic preservation expert with specific expertise in theater preservation, on the BDC panel charged with deciding the Senator’s future.

The BDC has already reached out to the League of Historic American Theaters, located in Baltimore, to supply written input. It is imperative that such an expert physically sits on the commission and has the opportunity to give on-going guidance and consultation as part of the deliberations.

The Senator’s storied façade is revered nationally and internationally as an icon of Art Deco design in general and theater architectural history specifically. The Senator’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places demands that those responsible for its care take every step within their power to protect the integrity, viability and historic nature of the structure.

Your administration has a small window of opportunity to create a safe environment for the Senator’s to flourish in the decades to come. The eyes of the Preservation Community are on Baltimore as this historic decision is made. Please feel free to call on Theatre Historical Society or me for assistance at any time.


Karen Colizzi Noonan
President, Theatre Historical Society of America

Indifference to history is more than just ignorance;
it is a form of ingratitude.
– David McCullough

SENATOR Theatre RFP: FOTS Takes A Stand, Sends Letters to Mayor Rawlings-Blake

Today, two members of Friends of The Senator (FOTS) emailed letters to Baltimore’s new mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake warning her that FOTS sees the BDC’s RFP process for theatre as flawed in its current situation. Specifically, that FOTS considers the process invalid without the inclusion of experienced historic theatre redevelopment experts.

What follows are the texts of those messages to the Mayor in their entirety.

UPDATE: Share our sentiments?
Now you can use our form letter (and add your own thoughts) to let the mayor know how you feel!

UPDATE II: Tom Harris asked that a passage be clarified.
His previous terminology is redlined and revised appears in blue italics.

From Laura Perkins, FoTS delegate to the BDC’s Senator Theatre Advisory Panel:

To The Honorable Mayor Rawlings-Blake:

I recently served on the Baltimore Development Corporation’s [BDC] Senator Theatre RFP advisory panel, along with other community leaders, as the sole representative of the Friends of The Senator [FOTS] group. I approached my duties on the RFP panel with optimism, determined to represent the interests and concerns of the FOTS and help identify an optimal future for Baltimore’s beloved Senator Theatre.

The Senator is a revered Baltimore City landmark and a celebrated State of Maryland historic showplace. It is also a renowned historic monument on the National Register of Historic Places and a source of pride among Senator enthusiasts and preservation groups nationwide, as well as a source of concern regarding its uncertain future.

I have invested considerable time and resources to research the complex issues involved with The Senator’s status as an endangered national historic landmark, and its future redevelopment and preservation potential based on successful models across the nation. My research was very encouraging, and I looked forward with enthusiasm and good faith to help produce an informed representative assessment of the two RFPs.

Madam Mayor, I applaud your intention to bring a new level of transparency and integrity to Baltimore City government practices, including the BDC. You have more support than you may imagine in that regard. In that light, I feel it is my responsibility to inform you and the public that based on my in-depth discussions with film exhibition professionals and historic theatre redevelopment experts, the alarming manner in which the BDC is conducting the Senator Theatre RFP selection process is procedurally flawed, and it must be rectified.

The process lacks the expertise and crucial transparency required for a high-profile civic redevelopment project that to date has required the investment of over a million dollars in taxpayer funds. It must become more objective and transparent as soon as possible. The Senator RFPs need objective scrutiny by industry experts to advise the panel and the BDC board, if the results, which they expect you to bless in announcing the new ownership and future direction of the Senator Theatre, are to have any validity. At this point, the RFP process is a shambles.

A key issue is the BDC’s refusal to allow a qualified historic theatre redevelopment consultant and a film exhibition expert to actively assist the citizen panel and the BDC in the professional evaluation of the two RFPs under consideration.

The Senator’s transition to new ownership and operation has many aspects to consider, including mercurial film industry dynamics, historic theatre preservation concerns and tax credit issues, evolution in programming models, deriving maximum economic benefits for the community, and models for non-profit structure and fundraising for historic theatres. It is vitally important to bring on board objective industry experts with successful track records from consulting on and managing similar projects nationwide. The industry experts have the professional experience required in managing the transition of an historic motion picture theatre like The Senator from its outmoded, single-screen first-run business model to a restored, thriving entertainment venue that delivers the maximum economic and cultural benefits to the community in perpetuity.

The Senator’s former owner, Tom Kiefaber, previously brought industry expert John Lind of Venuetech, Inc. from California to Baltimore as a consultant to meet with the extended community, and his knowledge and insights regarding The Senator’s future non-profit incarnation were invaluable. Mr. Lind is an accomplished historic theatre redevelopment professional who has the high level of experience and an impressive portfolio of success that would greatly assist the BDC’s mandate to identify an optimal outcome for the Senator RFP process. The FOTS believe that John Lind is an ideal candidate, although he is certainly not the only option available.

The BDC must reach out to include objective industry experts like Mr. Lind. These experts have developed a set of established procedures over the years, through many successful historic theatre redevelopment projects nationwide, to ensure that the final RFP recommendation submitted to you has been determined in the most credible and informed manner possible. So far, the BDC representatives have simply insisted on keeping the Senator RFP process shrouded in secrecy. In light of your recent reassurances to the citizens of Baltimore that your administration will lift Baltimore’s City Hall above and beyond its widely sullied reputation, I hope you will agree that this odd and provocative stance by the BDC is simply unacceptable, and that it warrants your thoughtful intervention.

Until qualified historic theatre redevelopment professionals are allowed into the mix in earnest, I cannot in good conscience participate further in the BDC’s tainted Senator Theatre RFP evaluation process. After careful consideration of the circumstances, I have resigned from the Senator RFP panel in protest and informed the BDC of my position in writing on behalf of the Friends of the Senator group, who support my actions on their behalf.

Thank you for your kind attention to this matter. I trust that you and your staff will assess the seriousness of this situation and agree with the FOTS group and others regarding the wisdom of encouraging the BDC leadership to open up the process and fulfill their mandate and responsibility to engage expert industry professionals in the Senator RFP evaluation process. This potentially damaging controversy will otherwise continue to escalate and potentially undermine the professional credibility of all concerned.

Laura Perkins
Friends of The Senator

From Tom Harris:

To The Honorable Mayor Rawlings-Blake,

As a founder of the Friends of The Senator (FOTS) and its president, I’ve been informed by Laura Perkins, our representative to the BDC’s Senator RFP Advisory Panel that the future of The Senator Theatre remains in jeopardy due to the curiously stubborn and misguided actions of Baltimore Development Corporation officials. If I may briefly have your attention to consider the following:

The iconic Senator is an internationally recognized Baltimore landmark, and the last of its kind in the state. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in its illustrious 70 year history it has hosted scores of high-profile premieres, served as critical economic engine and cultural amenity in the heart of the Belvedere Square business and residential communities and produced hundreds of fundraising events that have supported a wide variety of not-for-profit, charitable organizations.

If the BDC is to make an honest and optimal recommendation to your office for a plan that envisions the best possible future for The Senator, the recommended plan must be scrutinized (and when awarded, carefully overseen) to ensure that its business and programming model will not only afford it sustainability, but ensure as well that the theatre’s many unique historic features and attributes are protected and preserved to guarantee that the irreplaceable essence of Baltimore’s classic 1939 art deco jewel will endure for another 70 years and beyond!

This is not to say that The Senator Theatre should be ‘set in amber’ as there are many needed updates to the facility to enhance its multipurpose functions. But, these evolutionary changes must be carefully thought out and complimentary to a full restoration effort before being implemented. What good is an internationally recognized historic landmark if we allow it to be altered in untoward ways that historic theatre redevelopment experts would consider foolish?

In the hearts and minds of 1,400 members of the international FOTS community intently following The Senator situation, we had high hopes that BDC officials would understand the legacy, the future possibilities and the significance the theatre holds in our rich history and in our North Baltimore businesses and residential communities. The repeated refusal of the BDC to allow actively engage professional historic theatre and film exhibition industry experts to participate in the process interactive panel discussions must be seen for what it is, an obvious and potentially fatal flaw. One we will all sorely regret if it is not corrected!

Just as any right-minded fine jeweler would not entrust the hiring of a diamond cutter to someone without expert understanding (if not first-hand experience) of diamond-cutting, Baltimore should not award private new ownership or operation of Baltimore’s historic landmark theatre without the invaluable guidance of those with significant experience and expertise in the realm of historic theatre redevelopment. These experts exist and examples of their successes are serving communities like ours nationwide. This is not an opportunity to be wasted, especially when Baltimore City has already invested a significant amount in this situation!

We were honored to be asked to have a representative serve on the RFP Advisory Panel, however, until the these glaring flaws in the process are rectified the Friends of The Senator organization can no longer, in good conscience, continue to contribute to the process or give credence to its validity or outcome.

We do not make these statements lightly, nor do we wish for the process to be rendered invalid, so we beg that you give this situation the attention it deserves.

The Senator is an experience. One you can especially see reflected in the faces of those visiting for the first time and those of children. As a volunteer weekend staffer (for nearly a year now) I’ve taken note of this. Let’s do this right. At the end, how great would it be to have demonstrated to the world that Baltimore City not only respects its history, but cares enough to bring the appropriate expertise aboard to ensure that this wonderful, unique treasure has been given an optimal chance of survival for the enjoyment of countless generations to come?!

Thank you for your valuable time and thoughtful consideration of this matter.

Tom Harris
Friends of The Senator

Copies were also sent to news agencies including The Daily Record, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Messenger, Investigative Voice, etc.