CAPE MAY - An appeal to City Council on Tuesday to save the city's only movie theater from demolition failed amid concerns the city could be sued for interfering.
The appeal came from Clay Street resident Jeanne Powick and Congress Street resident Barbara Skinner, who want council to declare the Beach Theatre "a key contributing building," which in historic preservation terms means it would have some protections against the wrecking ball. Powick argued that historic properties boost tourism and property values.
"An historic property is at very high risk right now," Powick said.
The owner of the theater, Frank Investments, is seeking approval from the Zoning Board to demolish the theater part of the building to build condominiums. The board already has met three times on the issue, with the next meeting set for March 31.
Due to the ongoing application, City Solicitor Tony Monzo advised council not to take action.
"It may end up in court. The city should not take any action while it's a contested matter," Monzo said.
Powick argued the local Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Board already have declared the theater, which opened in 1950, a historic building - but that designation has no meaning without council approval. She said the matter was sent to council before the Zoning Board application, but council has declined to act.
Mayor Ed Mahaney noted that the HPC at one point approved the demolition. That permit expired without the demolition taking place.
"The owner did not demolish before the approval date and now it's being heard for a second time," Mahaney said.
Frank Investments officials have told the Zoning Board that the 61-year-old theater is not historic. The Beach Theatre Foundation, a group trying to save the building, claims the opposite.
Skinner read a letter from the group Preservation New Jersey, arguing that the theater - which includes retail shops - is unique.
"It's the first and only remaining example of a storefront theater on the Jersey shore. This very fine model of theater design should be protected as well as celebrated," the letter states.
Mahaney advised council members not to discuss the issue.
"I think it's inappropriate for City Council to give any comment on that while it's before the Zoning Board," Mahaney said.
The theater was built by movie-theater mogul William C. Hunt and designed by famed Philadelphia architect W. H. Lee. The HPC voted 4-3 on April 23, 2007, to allow demolition - but then reversed itself in another 4-3 vote June 11, 2007.
Skinner said the HPC, after hearing testimony about the theater's history, later deemed it a key contributing building and so did the Planning Board.
"Per city code this has to be approved by council. It's been in City Council's hands since January 2010 and they've decided not to put it on the agenda," Skinner said.
George Thomas, the architectural historian hired by Frank Investments, stated at last week's Zoning Board meeting that the state ends the period for historical buildings in 1940 - unless an individual designation is given to a building of "significant architectural character." Thomas argued the theater does not deserve special designation but is simply "part of the automobile strip mall culture after World War II."
Debra Frank said the company has approval to construct condominiums and believes it already is "within our rights to demolish" the theater.
"The only part of that theater that is historic is the facade, which we're going to keep," Frank said.
Due to a city ban on summertime demolitions, Frank said she does not expect the building to come down until the fall.
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