By DARREN TOBIA and JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A redevelopment plan that could help the Bellevue Theatre reopen is closer to being set. 

The Planning Board is reviewing a draft redevelopment plan that would let Bellevue Theater owner Jesse Sayegh and his daughter Doreen, the theater’s director and president, renovate and eventually reopen the property. It has been shuttered since 2017, when Bow Tie Cinemas pulled out. 

The Bellevue Theatre — constructed in 1921 and opened in 1922 — was well-known for its annual traditions of showing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and hosting the Montclair Film Festival, which has now found a new home at the Clairidge on Bloomfield Avenue.

In October of last year, Township Council members designated the theater property as an area in need of rehabilitation, saying they wanted to offer tax abatements and relax some zoning requirements to help get the theater reopened. 

“The Township Council wanted to help the owners of the Bellevue Theatre with the understanding that small theaters are facing significant problems in operations, particularly during COVID,” Janice Talley, Montclair’s director of planning and community development, told the Planning Board on Monday.

The next step in the process is the redevelopment plan now being reviewed by the Planning Board, which would set rules specific to the property that override local zoning. Talley said a version of the plan with adjustments members suggested will be brought back to the Planning Board April 11, when it could adopt a resolution recommending the plan to the council. 

The property is currently in a neighborhood commercial zone, where theaters are not permitted. The redevelopment agreement would allow a theater as a permitted use as long as 50% of the building is used as a movie theater. As the theater currently has no parking, but codes require four spaces for every seat, the draft agreement states that no parking would be required as well if the owners maintain the 50% theater space.  

It would require existing features of the historic Tudor-style revival building to be preserved, with a height restriction of three stories. 

And the plan would allow — after authorization of a separate ordinance to enable it — a phased-in tax abatement on the building over five years, which would grant the developers time to invest in the building, Talley said. 

The current annual taxes on the property of $66,506 would be required to be paid each year, while tax increases caused by the improvements would be paid in increments starting at 20% and increasing each year until 100% is reached after five years, Talley said.

While the theater had 885 theater seats in four theaters and 5,000 square feet of personal service retail space under Bow Tie, new plans call for 400 seats, spread farther apart.

Permitted uses for the first-floor space in addition to the theater include retail stores, personal service establishments, restaurants and cafes, educational play centers and health clubs in the retail area. Business and professional offices, excluding medical offices, and multifamily dwelling units are permitted above the first floor. 

The owners have stated in the past, they planned to include apartments in the redevelopment. 

At a Historic Preservation Commission hearing on Thursday, March 24, in which the Sayeghs revealed plans for facade changes, upgrades to storefronts and renovations to the marquee, Jesse Sayegh said that more renovations are planned in the future, but his main goal was to get the theater up and running. 

Plywood covering the windows on the first floor will be removed, letting that space be used for retail again. The building’s signature green marquee, with signature Gothic font, will remain, but be painted black. The second floor will eventually be converted into two apartments, Jesse Sayegh said.

“Right now we are concentrating on the reopening of the theater and restoring the storefront only, at this point, to be presentable,” he said. 

Further renovations would have to go before the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board. 

“This is a building that has become emblematic of the Upper Montclair Historic District and people are very excited for the renewal of the building,” Kathleen Bennett, chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, said.

Doreen Sayegh told Montclair Local that she still doesn’t have a date for the reopening of the theater.  

The Bellevue operated continuously for 95 years until its closure after Bow Tie Cinemas, which leased the space for two decades, then let the lease expire four years ago.

The company owned all the film equipment inside, so when it left, the building was emptied out. 

“The loss of the theater was a real blow to the neighborhood,” Preservation Commission member Michael Graham said.

Plans by a group known as Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC’s to renovate the facility into six theaters, a restaurant and a bar were put aside in early 2021, when Jesse Sayegh terminated that group’s lease due to what he said at the time was a breach of contract. The group consisted of Luke Parker Bowles, Patrick Wilson, Brandon Jones, Andy Childs, Larry Slous, Vincent Onorati and Steven Plofker.

The Sayeghs then announced in spring of 2021 they planned to renovate the theater themselves.

The owners said in an announcement last year they plan to present a “diverse spectrum of film programming, including studio, independent and international releases, and providing much-needed space for live entertainment such as musical performances, as well as film festival screenings, lectures and receptions.”

“Right from the early planning stages it was apparent to me that Jesse and Doreen are committed both to preserving the integrity of the theater spaces as well as to maintain the historic feel of the building,” Ilmar Vanderer, an advocate for the theater who has worked with its owners to promote its preservation and restoration, said. 

Vanderer has been one of the neighborhood’s most vocal supporters of saving the theater since it closed in 2017.

The purpose of designating rehabilitation areas 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.