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Alameda Theater Plan Challenged By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday August 16, 2005

The two sides in a battle over a proposed movie cineplex and multi-story parking garage project in downtown Alameda both agree that more parking is needed in the city’s downtown area, and the 77-year-old Alameda Theater should be restored. They just don’t agree that the $23.7 million Historic Alameda Theater Rehabilitation Project is the way to do it. 

The issue comes to a head tonight (Tuesday) at 6:10 p.m. when the five-member Alameda City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on an appeal of a Planning Board decision to approve the rehabilitation project. The appeal was requested by residents Ani Dimusheva and Valeria Ruma. The hearing will be held during the council’s meeting in City Council Chambers, 2263 Santa Clara Ave. in Alameda. 

The parking-theater complex is proposed for the corner of Central Avenue and Oak Street in the heart of Alameda’s downtown Civic Center area, less than a block from the main business strip of Park Street and within walking distance of City Hall. City officials consider the old theater restoration and cineplex and parking garage construction as one project, listing all of them together in one link on the city’s website. 

“We want the city to call a halt to the project,” said retired Highland Hospital psychiatric medical social worker Jenny Curtis, an Alameda resident who supports the appeal. “We want them to rethink it, and to proceed with the restoration of the theater and the solving of the parking problem in a more sensible way. We don’t think the answer is in the enormous buildings that they’ve planned. We believe the citizens have been hoodwinked.” 

Curtis said that an ad hoc coalition is prepared to present petitions at tonight’s hearing “signed by an enormous number of citizens and people who work in Alameda who are opposed to the project.” 

The marquee and external facade of the historic Alameda Theater look much the same way as it did when it opened in 1932, designed by Timothy L. Pflueger, the same San Francisco architect who designed Oakland’s Paramount Theater. 

But while the Paramount continues to support live performances and specialty films in a restored interior, the Alameda Theater closed as a cinema outlet in 1979. Since then, alterations for various non-cinema uses—including a roller rink and a gymnastics center—have left the theater without the characteristic sloped floors and with holes knocked in the art deco ceiling to support added lighting. 

Last May, Alameda City Council voted 5-0 to acquire the theater through eminent domain. The city plans to retain ownership of the original theater, but will lease it for operation by theater remodeler Kyle Conner of Santa Rosa. In addition, the city plans to build a seven-screen cinema next door to the original theater. Films will be shown in both the historic and multi-screen portions of the theater complex, with the entranceway and lobby of the original theater serving as the gateway for both parts of the venue. 

The developer-operator is expected to invest $9 million of his own money into the theater project. 

Next door to the multi-plex theater building on Oak Street, the city plans construction of a six-level, 350-space parking garage. 

Leslie Little, Development Services Director for the city of Alameda, said that the purpose of the combined project is to restore the historic theater to its original use, and to provide services for Alameda residents and businesses. 

“Several years ago, the community set two priorities for the downtown area,” she said by telephone. “One of them was to build a parking structure to increase parking opportunities. The other was the restoration of the theater, which is such a gem, and needs to be saved for the use of the community.” 

Alameda committed itself to carrying out these goals, Little said, pointing to the mission of the Historic Alameda Rehabilitation Project. 

“The cineplex was included only to help offset the costs of this project, which are going to be considerable,” she said. “The cineplex will help provide some of the operation support for the electrical and water bills, maintenance costs and staffing which will be needed to keep the theater open. Without that offset, the city would have to find a way to come up with the costs ourselves.” 

That was not enough to convince Alameda residents Dimusheva and Ruma, who appealed the June 27 Planning Board approval of the garage portion of the project. Curtis said she hopes that the hearing will allow opponents to the project to present their views on the entire restoration and construction project. 

“We’re objecting to both the size and the aesthetics of the garage and cineplex,” Curtis said. “The Alameda is a magnificent building in the art deco style, but the proposed new buildings are hideous, concrete, modern structures that are incompatible with the historic nature of the area that we are trying to preserve. The basic design is inappropriate. The first time many of us looked at artist’s renditions we said ‘My God! This is horrible!’ We were shocked and stunned.” 

Curtis said the operation of a cineplex theater is financially risky, “and if this thing doesn’t work out, the Alameda taxpayers are going to have to foot the entire bill.” 

“We know the downtown area needs to change,” added Curtis, who describes herself as a preservationist. “We’re not the kind of people who want to keep everything the same. But we believe that these changes can take place without raping the downtown.”