The Bellevue Theatre property has been declared an area in need of rehabilitation, which could smooth the process of the redevelopment of the historic theater and will give the owners a tax abatement.

The Montclair Township Council voted unanimously to approve the designation on Tuesday, Oct. 19, with no discussion. 

In May, Doreen Sayegh, who owns the property with her father, Jesse Sayegh, announced plans to reopen the theater, which has been shuttered since 2017.

Plans at the time called for keeping the facility at four theaters, with one having a stage for live performances, as well as adding residential units. The theaters would have to be completely renovated with new equipment and seats, as former lessee Bow Tie stripped the theaters, taking the screens, projectors and the seats when it left in 2017.

The current timeline for reopening is unknown. Jesse and Doreen Sayegh have not attended any meetings concerning the designation. No plans have been filed with the planning department.  They did not return a message left with Ilmar Vanderer, who created Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre Facebook page and has taken a volunteer role working with the theater’s owners on saving the building.

Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who presented the move for designation, has not yet responded to an Oct. 13 email asking what the impetus for the designation was, and whether the owners approached the township about it. At the council meeting, he said that the “rehabilitation of the property was coming along nicely and they hope to have it back running by the end of this year.”

Currently, the Bellevue is in a neighborhood commercial zone, where movie theaters are not permitted. But the Bellevue has operated as a theater since 1922, and in 1997 the Montclair Township Zoning Board of Adjustment approved an application to expand it, continuing that use and citing its long history.

Although Montclair’s zoning requires one off-street parking space for every four theater seats, no parking is available or planned for the site. A redevelopment agreement, which will follow, could negate the variance needed for parking and could grandfather in theater use. 

The agreement could also require certain design standards in order to maintain the historical quality of the building and could ease height restrictions. It also would allow for phased-in tax abatement of the property's $65,817 annual taxes over a five-year period. The abatement would grant the developers time to invest in the building, Planner Janice Talley said.

On Aug. 24, Planning Board members gave their approval on the designation, but in their recommendation had noted that they wanted to up the redevelopment instead of the council. 

Either the Planning Board or Township Council can write up such a plan, and the decision as to which will handle it falls with the council, Talley said.

After a previous development plan fell through, Doreen Sayegh, who is also the Bellevue Theatre president, said she and her father want to revive and reopen the 1922 theater with a focus on community and the arts. She said at the time they were also looking into more retail on the first floor, and adding apartments on the second floor.

The general purpose for designating a rehabilitation area is to encourage the renovation or reconstruction of existing structures and stop the deterioration of the area, according to state statute. 

An area can be designated in need of rehabilitation if a significant portion of the structures in the area are deteriorated or in substandard condition, if there is a continuing pattern of vacancy, abandonment or underutilization of properties in the area, if property taxes are up to date and if the buildings and the sewer and water systems in the area are at least 50 years old.

Current annual taxes on the property are up to date, according to tax records.

Plans were presented in 2017 by Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC to renovate the four-theater facility into six theaters, a restaurant and a bar. But that application was pulled in January, when Jesse Sayegh terminated Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC’s lease due to what he said at the time was a breach of contract. Highgate withdrew its application with the zoning board, which was previously expected to be approved just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The Montclair Township Council is also looking into another area in need of rehabilitation designation in the Walnut Street area. It has authorized the planning board to conduct a study of two lots in the Walnut Street Area at 6-10 Erie St. and 117 Forest St. Both lots are owned by 34 Label St. The Erie Street lot was once home to Richie Cecere’s nightclub, which closed in 2012 and has been vacant since. A planning board meeting on the designation has not been scheduled. No plans for redevelopment for the lots have been filed with the planning department.