Bellevue Theater backers reveal plans for updates to historical theater
BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Plans for the renovated Bellevue Theater include six theaters, a restaurant and a bar, but no parking.
The new owners are seeking relief from zoning law compliance on five issues, including building height, fencing, marquee signage and parking since the theater has never had a parking lot. Movie-goers will have to depend on finding parking at four parking plazas in Upper Montclair or along the street.
In June, a group of residents and entrepreneurs announced their intentions to save the historic Tudor theater, which was shuttered in November 2017, with plans to renovate and reopen the nearly century-old Bellevue Avenue landmark.
In June, a year and a half after Bow Tie Cinemas decided not to renew its lease, owner Jesse Sayegh and Highgate Hall LLC entered into a lease agreement. Highgate Hall LLC consists of seven partners: film and television producer Luke Parker Bowles, actor Patrick Wilson, developer Steven Plofker, corporate strategist Andy Childs, lawyer Larry Slous, marketer Vincent Onorati, and Brandon Jones, former partner of the in-theater dining chain Studio Movie Grill. All but Jones, who currently lives in Texas, are Montclair residents.
The group chose the name “Highgate Hall” from the name of the former second-floor restaurant that served meals such as lobster thermidor, sirloin tips and stuffed turkey and closed in the 1960s. The restaurant had a Tudor feel with murals on the walls regularly changed depending on the season, according to Lisanne Renner of Friends of Anderson Park, who researched the historic movie theater that began showing films in 1922.
The group plans to show first-run Hollywood studio movies, family films, select independent features, revivals, event cinema and alternative content. Movie-goers will also be able to order food and non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages directly from a mobile device.
The facility contains four theaters with a total of 885 seats, following a 1987 renovation that split the theater into three, and another expansion in 1997 that added another 100 seats in a fourth theater. It has never provided onsite parking.
The proposed renovations increase the number of theaters, but the number of total seats drops by about 45 percent, to 489 seats. Code requires one parking space for every four seats, bringing the parking requirement to 122, just under half of what the requirement had been previously. The bar and restaurant would require another 58 spaces to bring the total requirement to 180 parking spaces.
The area contains 440 parking spaces along the streets and in lots: 320 metered and 120 permit spaces. Of the four parking plazas in Upper Montclair, the train station lot is all permit spots, while three others, Upper Montclair Plaza, Bellevue and Lorraine, have a total of 197 public spaces.
Plans for expansion include raising the building height from 38.1 feet to 51.75, where 24 feet is allowed. The theaters will be contained throughout three levels of the facility, with the restaurants and bar on the first and second floors, according to the plans by Sionas Architecture.
Architect Paul Sionas said the reason behind the height increase is to install bigger seats and screens and for ADA accessibility. More bathrooms and an elevator will also be added.
Plans call for the 20-seat bar to be located in the front to the right and flow out outside in warmer weather, while the ticket box would be to the left. The marquee sign would wrap around the east side of the building. Parker Bowles told the commission moving the entrance was necessary from a business, safety and function sense to keep the flow of movie goers and bar customers and wait staff separate.
Although the facade would be restored to its original state, commission members did take issue with moving the entrance and marquee to the left. The commission did not have a concern with adding 13 feet to the buildings height.
Board member John Rooney said It’s a good example of how lower massing on the street frontage will hide the larger massing in the back.
The commission agreed with board consultant Thomas B. Connolly’s assessment that the changes are minimal to the building’s distinctive materials, features, spaces and spatial relationships and therefore keeping with the “Standards for Rehabilitation” and the proposed enlargement of the building to the rear does not radically change, obscure, or destroy the character-defining features that are primarily located forward of the house structure and appear to be generally needed to ensure the buildings continued use as a theater.
But the board did agree that removing or changing the location of the historic main entrance and marquee, which are important in defining the overall historic character of the building, should be avoided.
The plan will go in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment in January.