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Plans entertained for UC Theatre restoration

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 20, 2002

The UC Theatre, at 2036 University Ave., was shut down last year and dismissed as a relic of the past. Now, though, it’s in high demand with several Berkeleyans wanting a refurbished theatre as part of their future. 

If theatre owner Pacific Bay Investments gets their plan approved, the future will belong to various cultural groups, sharing ground floor theater and art space below 56 apartments on a projected second floor.  

According to lead architect James Novosel, the 13,000 square-foot, ground floor cultural center would feature a 250-seat theatre, a 100-seat theatre, as well as an area that could be used as a dance studio or gallery space.  

The center would be connected to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre property and the Addison Street Art District via a pedestrian walkway that includes a 3,000 square-foot open-air courtyard.  

“Everyone will benefit from this project,” said Igal Sarfaty, a PCI partner, who added that his company would offer the cultural space to organizations at 50 cents on the dollar.  

To help offset the costs of the cultural center, the upper level of the theatre would be converted into 56 studios and one-bedroom apartments. Approximately 25 percent of the units would be designated as affordable housing. 

The current plan was not previously anticipated. 

Last year, the city commissioned Gary Meyer, a founder of Landmark Theatres, to determine a suitable future for the theatre. 

The expectation was that it would be persevered as a movie house. However, when it was determined that neither multiplexing the theatre nor turning it into a brew pub were economically viable, Meyer offered two recommendations: the option currently being pursued by the owners or a performing arts center.  

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is still pursuing the latter option. An acoustic study of the theatre revealed that it is ideal for symphonic music, and an upgrade from the symphony's current home at Zellerbach Hall. 

Managing a restored UC Theatre, would permit the symphony to better schedule its performances, and would preserve the theatre as a single venue. 

The catch is that the symphony averages about nine shows a year. To take control of the theatre, it would have to partner with other interested groups to round out the performance schedule and raise enough money to pay for theatre upgrades. 

A year into the process, neither the orchestra nor any other group has presented funding for the project.  

“We would hope to build a consortium of groups,” said symphony Director Katherine Barker-Henwood. However, she contends their effort has been stymied by uncertainty over how much money would be required to convert the theatre into a symphony hall, and whether the brick building is seismically worthy of a large-scale investment estimated to cost between $2 million and $10 million. 

The owners recently paid roughly $500,000 to seismically upgrade the theatre, a cost that was supposed to be shared with the former tenants, Landmark Theatres. 

However, the upgrade only guarantees that the building will not collapse in an earthquake, not that it will be usable afterward, according Ted Burton, a project manager in the city’s Office of Economic Development.  

“If you’re going to invest a huge amount of money on a symphony hall, you don’t want to lose it in the next quake,” said Burton.  

Having put a lot of money into the theatre without much rental income, the owners are anxious to move forward with the cultural center plan, which they can finance through the revenue earned by the housing units.  

“The theatre has been closed for a year. We don’t see any new operator stepping forward to use it as a big theater,” said Sarfaty.  

According to Novosel, the cultural center plan will be presented to the Berkeley Architectural Historical Association this week, and then shown to other design commissions.  

“We are doing a public outreach to find out if there is a community consensus on the need for a cultural center or if there is overwhelming support for maintaining the theatre,” Novosel said.  

Members of Berkeley’s performing art community seemed to favor the symphony hall, but were realistic about its chances. 

“If someone said he would be responsible for raising the money then I say go for it. Otherwise let the owners do something with the property,” said Patrick Dooley, artistic director for the Shotgun Players, a theater troupe currently using the theatre. 

The cultural center project could be submitted to the Zoning Adjustment Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission within a couple of months, and if approved, it could open by early 2004, according to Novosel.