History of the Hollywood Part 5: Minneapolis' Continued Preservation Challenge

Preservation Design Works has recently been working with a prospective developer interested in the Hollywood Theater*, located at 2815 Johnson St. NE in Minneapolis. Several attempts to redevelop the building have been made in the past 25 years; thus far all have been unsuccessful. To help learn where things have gone wrong in the past, and to avoid problems encountered by previous redevelopment efforts, I have been researching the history of the theater and of the redevelopment efforts. This post is the fifth of a multi-part series about the history of the Hollywood Theater and efforts to re-open its doors.

My first post in this series covered the history of the theater from its grand opening to the closing of its doors in 1987. My second post covered an effort to convert the theater into fourteen apartment units, which drummed up strong opposition and ultimately fell through after the exterior and interior of the building were designated as historic. My third post outlined redevelopment efforts following the historic designation, up to the acquisition of the building by the City of Minneapolis in 1993. In my fourth post, I turned my attention away from the Hollywood Theater to shine a light on Liebenberg and Kaplan, the architectural firm that designed the Hollywood. In my fifth post (fourth in chronological series), I outlined the proposed redevelopment efforts of Hollywood Theatre Preservation. This concluding post outlines subsequent efforts to redevelop the building, and summarizes activities at the site of the Hollywood up until present.

By mid-1998, the theater was reaching a tipping point in its condition. Years of vacancy and a leaking roof were taking their toll. In August 1998, the MCDA issued a second request for proposals (RFP) for the theater. The second RFP was more flexible than the first, and invited submissions for ideas that included full or partial demolition of the theater. MCDA Project Coordinator Sharrin Miller-Bassi stated it would cost an estimated $2.7 million to restore the theater, $80,000 to demolish it, and $95,000 to demolish the auditorium only, leaving the lobby intact.

The condition of the theater's interior was looking dire in 1999. Source: HGA Engineering Report, CPED Files.

The condition of the theater's interior was looking dire in 1999. Source: HGA Engineering Report, CPED Files.

Support for the Hollywood remained strong. An open house at the theater held by the MCDA in September 1998 to gage interest drew over 600 attendees. Robert Roscoe described the open house event in the Minnesota Preservationist magazine using his typical colorful manner:  “The September 1st crowd contained many people who possess a passion for theater but may have hoped that the person next to them would be the one with the funds to engineer a renovation. The crowd saw the Hollywood’s geometrically decorous interior now in a disheveled state – its auditorium with the MCDA trademark of badly deteriorating plaster walls resulting from a leaky roof. But overall, the structure is very solid and its original architectural features seem to be asking for repair and fresh paint.”

The MCDA received five responses to the second RFP by the October 1998 deadline. A review team selected two of these responses for further discussion and interviews. The two selected responses were presented at a May 1999 Audubon Neighborhood Association (ANA) meeting and put up to a vote. One of the selected responses was from Ed Finley, owner of Fun In-A-Half Productions, for a re-use of the theater as an entertainment venue. Finley’s company booked circus acts and professional sports half-time shows. He proposed to bring in circus acts, musicians, comedians, and other entertainment for about 150 days per year, and to lease the building for other uses on the remaining days. Finley would request a liquor license that would allow drink sales but not a bar. Regarding the proposed liquor license, at the meeting ANA board member Gavin Watt noted that “it would be a significant change if people support a liquor license.” The second of the selected responses was from Gordon Awsumb of Minnesota Development. Awsumb proposed a housing development for the site, which would demolish much or all of the building, and potentially keep the façade intact. Awsumb cited another housing project of his in Mankato that required historic renovation as a similar example. MCDA officials recommended Awsumb’s housing proposal over Finley’s entertainment proposal because the housing project was more likely to succeed financially. MCDA officials also disagreed with Finley’s low cost estimates for renovation. When preparing his proposal to do the renovation “on the cheap,” Finley had brought over 40 contractors through the building and estimated the renovation would cost around $800,000. Votes by the ANA board and Audubon Neighborhood members at the meeting both overwhelmingly favored Finley’s proposal. In July 1999, the MCDA subsequently granted Finley exclusive development rights.

Finley and the MCDA grossly disagreed on the cost of rehabilitation. Finley insisted that he could renovate the theater for about $1 million, but other developers and city officials were convinced that the renovation costs were closer to $2 million. At a neighborhood meeting, Finley expressed his belief that the MCDA officials held the restoration of downtown movie palaces such as the Orpheum and State theaters as models for restoration “including artists on scaffolding painting gold leaf on the ceiling.” Miller-Bassi countered by stating the three cost estimates that MCDA has received fell between $2 million and $2.5 million, and “include no gold leaf ceilings.” Negotiations and planning between Finley and the MCDA continued. In August 2000, the Minneapolis City Council’s Community Development Committee directed the MCDA to keep negotiating with Finley. MCDA had urged the Committee to rescind the exclusive development rights a year before, citing the disparity between cost estimates. Finley strongly disagreed with the MCDA’s position: “This is a completely different way of developing a theater. For the lack of a better term, it’s doing it on the cheap. … What you have to decide is whether you want to look at things out of the box.” Finley made it clear that he wasn’t planning a full restoration: “The task at hand is to bring the building up to code; to gain an occupancy permit for my intended purposes. Nothing more and nothing less. We’re not re-doing the showroom at Caesar’s Palace.” First Ward Councilmember Paul Ostrow argued against allowing the theater to remain vacant, and voiced frustration with the MCDA’s resistance to approach development in a way that might be more cost effective. Steve Cramer, executive director of the MCDA defended their position: “There are some fundamentals in real estate development that you have to pay attention to, and in many cases they’re not here.” Ultimately, Finley and the MCDA were unable to sort out their differences regarding the cost of the potential project. In June of 2002, the MCDA and the Audubon Neighborhood Associated withdrew their support for Finley’s proposal.

In the fall of 2002, the MCDA made several much-needed efforts to abate and stabilize the Hollywood. The City accepted a $160,000 Metropolitan Council environmental remediation grant, and concurrently allocated $249,000 from their Community Economic Development Fund to finance these efforts. Extensive abatement was performed, which included removal of mold and asbestos-containing items such as pipe insulation and the adhesive for the acoustical ceiling tiles (many of which had already fallen due to the leaking roof). Lead-based paint was also stabilized. Perhaps most importantly, a much-needed new roof membrane was installed. The City also installed a mechanical blower and heater to keep the building above freezing temperatures in the winter, and to prevent the growth of mold in the warmer months. Sump pumps were installed in the basement to keep it dry. The MCDA (now Community Planning and Economic Development, or CPED) made several additional smaller repairs to the building over the next few years. The City’s improvements to the building may very well have prevented a complete loss of the building due to continued physical deterioration.

While efforts were being made to stabilize the building, the MCDA issued a third RFP for the Hollywood in October 2002 that invited proposals for both the theater building and the vacant lot across the street. This RFP sought entertainment uses for the theater (likely reflecting the preferences expressed by the neighborhood), with an emphasis on a strong development team and financial feasibility. In July 2003, the Minneapolis City Council’s Community Development Committee granted exclusive development rights to a new proposal for the theater from Gordon Awsumb. His new proposal for the Hollywood included several scenarios for redevelopment, including reuse of the theater for movies only, adapting the theater as a multi-purpose food and entertainment venue, development of the vacant site across the street with a four-story condominium building above a parking ramp, and combinations of these uses. According to newspaper articles at the time and MCDA memorandums, the multi-purpose entertainment use of the theater and condominium development at the former gas station site across the street appears to have been given the largest amount of planning compared to other the RFP responses. The proposed entertainment use of the theater included the restoration of the lobby and foyers, along with installation of a kitchen and dinner-theater style seating. A well-known local restaurateur was lined up to manage the theater’s operations. The housing development across the street appears to have been an important component of making the project financially feasible, and would have provided some of the necessary parking required. From what I have gathered reviewing the files about this project at the department of Community Planning and Economic Development (formerly the MCDA), it continued to move forward for the next few years. However, around 2007-2008 it followed the fate of the previous proposals and fell through. 

After the string of stalled and failed redevelopment attempts in the early 2000’s, Hillcrest Development, under the leadership of Scott Tankenoff, donated services and expertise to the City with the goal of increasing the redevelopment viability of the theater. One of the improvements to potential redevelopment project was the purchase of the adjacent property to the north of the Hollywood. The lack of space around the theater makes reuse difficult: the building comes to the property lines on all four sides – making exiting, parking, and site needs near impossible.  A vacant single family home on the site (considered to be “blighted” according to City reports) was demolished to clear space for potential future uses of the Hollywood, and as an option for future expansion of the building. During this time, CPED also worked with the Hollywood Task Force (a neighborhood committee associated with the Audubon Neighborhood Association) to develop a new strategy to achieve the goal of a stable reuse of the Hollywood. Because the previous plans for entertainment uses had not been successful, it was recognized that it would be prudent to consider other use options. During this process, the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) was engaged to provide guidance on the appropriateness of modifications to increase the viability of a non-entertainment reuse of the building. HPC staff was directed to prepare a catalog of character defining features of the Hollywood. From these discussions, a report outlining the “Framework for Treatment of Character Defining Features for the Reactivation of the Hollywood Theater” was approved by the HPC in March 2009. The framework outlined character defining features of the interior and exterior, provided guidance for appropriate treatments of these features, and also how sensitive reversible modifications (such as leveling the auditorium floor) could be made.

In 2009, Miles Mercer inherited the management of the Hollywood Theater at CPED. In June, 2009, the City issued a fourth RFP for the Hollywood Theater. This RFP included the adjacent property acquired in 2008, and sought “viable commercial uses.” The City received three responses to the proposal. Two of the responses were for an entertainment/cultural venue, and the other was for an event venue. None of the proposals met the requirements of the RFP. Since 2009, the City has marketed the building for sale using both traditional and creative marketing. Open houses are held annually in conjunction with the Johnstock Festival. The building has also hosted a wide range of creative uses such as filming of music videos and movies, fashion shoots, a literary reading, two live theater productions, and other events. These events brought free media coverage and other attention to the building, which increased awareness of it and highlighted its potential for renovation. In addition, the events brought visitors and traffic to the 29th and Johnson commercial node, contributing to its activity and vitality. 

Meanwhile, Andrew Volna of Apiary, LLC has been quietly studying the theater for many years. Volna is a resident of Ward 1, a business owner in Northeast, and an established developer of existing properties. His successful projects in Northeast Minneapolis include the Rayvic Building, the Hawkinson Building, and the Hiawatha Building, among others. Preservation Design Works has been working with Volna on a potential redevelopment project at the Hollywood that meets the City and neighborhood goals as well as the need for financial viability for a project. As a result, in December 2012, Volna was granted exclusive development rights for the Hollywood Theater for one year. Volna’s project seeks to “relight” the Hollywood by bringing the building back into use, business to Johnson Street, and a National Register-designated property to the neighborhood. The space is being marketed to creative office tenants in order to preserve the building and its capacity to serve again as a single screen movie theater in the future. The preservation strategy proposes restoration of key character defining features, especially at the primary façade – like the marquee, canopy, porthole light fixtures, and poster cases. The proposed tenant use requires little change to the auditorium, other than a reversibly-installed level floor over the sloped floor. 

Substantial progress has been made on this project, with significantly more effort to come. Involving input from the community has been an important component of the planning and due diligence process. The Hollywood Task Force and neighborhood have been engaged in the project development plans, with presentations to the Audubon Neighborhood Association and a tour of similar projects for the Task Force. Many productive work meetings have been held with CPED staff and Council Member Kevin Reich. Volna has been working with CPED planning staff, as well as the HPC, to ensure that the project meets all stakeholder goals.

Restoring and revitalizing the Hollywood Theater is important because it represents many of our most challenging preservation issues. The building is critical to the health of the neighborhood, but has proven difficult to make attractive to private investment. The theater-specific floor plan limits reuse options, but a use must be found that is compatible with remaining historic features. Without National Register designation, the building has been ineligible for many grants for historic preservation. Even with federal designation, historic tax credits are less viable for smaller projects. With so many previous development proposals that have failed, the Hollywood seemed metaphorically stuck. Now, however, the neighborhood and city staff have been engaged with Andrew Volna and Preservation Design Works to ensure that the project aligns with local goals and needs. With careful planning (and some good luck), the Hollywood won’t sit dark and empty much longer. 

I’d like to extend my thanks to Gavin Watt of the Northeast Investment Cooperative and Miles Mercer of the City of Minneapolis for the help they provided me with filling in some gaps in the information I collected for this series. The Northeaster also deserves many thanks for their fantastic work chronicling the activity and events surrounding the Hollywood Theater since its marquee lights went out over 25 years ago. Finally, many thanks to the Hennepin County Library’s Special Collections for collecting an extensive assortment of information about the Hollywood, from photos to newspaper clippings.  

*Note regarding nomenclature: I have encountered “Hollywood Theater” and “Hollywood Theatre” used interchangeably in reference to the building. The original drawings and advertisements for the building called it the “Hollywood Theatre,” however the majority of the material I have found about the building called it the “Hollywood Theater.” For the sake of simplicity, and in accordance with the most conventional American English spelling, I will refer to the building as the “Hollywood Theater.”

Sources:

Hollywood Theater files, Department of City Planning and Economic Development, Minneapolis.

Mike Anderson, “Northeast may lose more of its history,” Northeaster, August 24, 1998.

Linda Mack, “Neighbors, agencies seek new life for northeast movie theaters,” Star Tribune, August 31, 1998.

Robert Roscoe, “Who raves for the Hollywood?,” Minnesota Preservationist (September/October, 1998): 15, 17.

Mike Anderson, “Officials, neighbors differ over Hollywood,” Northeaster, May 18, 1999.

Mike Anderson, “The Hollywood Theatre renovation is still moving forward,” Northeaster, February 8, 2000.

Steve Brandt, “Council panel backs plans for theaters in northeast Minneapolis,” Star Tribune, August 2, 2000.

Mike Anderson, “Hollywood re-do ‘on the cheap’,” Northeaster, August 8, 2000.

Mary M. Stegmeir, “Minneapolis approves renovation proposal for Hollywood Theatre,” Star Tribune, July 24, 2003.

“Hollywood Theater,” Minneapolis department of Community Planning and Economic Development, online: http://www.minneapolismn.gov/cped/projects/cped_hollywood_theater.