NOTE: A newsletter sent by Montclair Local Feb. 23 contained a link to this story in error. For Montclair Local’s story on parents suing the school district to return students to school buildings, see here.
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The group planning to remodel and reopen Montclair’s historic Bellevue Theatre has pulled out — at least temporarily.
UPDATE, Jan. 9: The owner of the theater says he is considering a residential and retail project with a theater on the ground level.
On Jan. 5, the group’s attorney sent a letter to the township planning department formally withdrawing its application for the theater expansion being reviewed by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
“After three years of planning its revival, we are saddened to announce we are unable to proceed with the redevelopment of the Bellevue Theatre in Upper Montclair. Unfortunately, after a significant amount of time and money was invested, we could not come to an agreement with the theater’s current owner,” Luke Parker Bowles, Patrick Wilson, Brandon Jones, Andy Childs, Larry Slous, Vincent Onorati and Steven Plofker of Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC wrote to Montclair Local.
Parker Bowles did not give specifics on what agreement the lessees could not reach with owner Jesse Sayegh. But, Angelo Cifelli, Sayegh’s attorney said that when the pandemic hit, both parties attempted to renegotiate the lease signed in 2019.
“It didn’t work out. They were pretty far apart,” Cifelli said.
The theater has been shuttered since November 2017, when then-tenant Bow Tie Cinemas declined to renew its lease. In June 2019, Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall, a group of residents and entrepreneurs, announced its intention to renovate and reopen the nearly century-old Bellevue Avenue landmark.
The developers envisioned a family-friendly theater showing first-run movies and offering in-theater dining and beverage service to the occupants of first-class-airline-sized seats. Due to the size of the seats, their number was to be reduced by 45 percent. But the developers planned to raise the roof height to create six theaters, more than the four housed previously in the facility.
The building was also to offer an indoor/outdoor bar on the first floor and a restaurant on the second floor. Additional bathrooms and an elevator were part of the plans, which were close to being approved by the zoning board last year.
The area was never zoned for a theater, although the town has allowed the theater use and approved it again for a 1997 expansion. Parking for the theater has never been offered on-site, and the requirement would have been 180 spaces. Plans to raise the roof also went against the usual height restrictions for the area.
The last hearing took place in February 2020, with the next scheduled for March. But then the pandemic hit, the March hearing was canceled, and another hearing was never scheduled.
Parker Bowles said the group is hopeful that the project will resurface someday.
“Understanding the present state of the world, we have concluded that this is an intermission — not an end. It has been an honor to breathe life into such a historical part of the Montclair community, and by no means are we saying goodbye,” he said.
Ilmar Vanderer was named Montclair’s 2020 Preservationist of the Year by the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission after creating Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre Facebook page and taking a lead role as a volunteer matchmaker, working with the theater’s owner to find a new tenant or buyer to reanimate the darkened space. He said while the development is disappointing, it’s not entirely unexpected.
“Given how the current pandemic conditions are impacting the entire cinema industry, the role of COVID cannot be underestimated as a contributing factor in affecting this outcome,” Vanderer said. “I plan to continue my voluntary and unpaid efforts to ensure that Montclair’s landmark, historical Bellevue Theatre is preserved as a publicly accessible cinematic venue in some way, shape or form, and is eventually reopened, in a post-COVID environment, of course.”
Cifelli said there are no other offers on the table for the Bellevue, as it has only been a few weeks since the lessees notified the owner of their intentions to pull out. He said it has always been the owner’s intention to save the historical theater.
“There were many offers to purchase for other uses, but his intention was to save it,” he said.
In 2017, the news of the cinema’s closing was a shock for Montclair residents when word leaked out that the Nov. 12, 2017, showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” would be the final one there.
A small rally took place at the cinema, prompting Vanderer to create the Facebook page.
The iconic English Tudor-style theater was originally built by Robert Anderson, son of Charles W. Anderson, who had earlier donated the land for Anderson Park, according to historian Lisanne Renner.
The theater opened in 1922 with a showing of “Orphans of the Storm,” starring Lillian Gish.
The property is located in the Upper Montclair Historic Business District, which was established as a local landmark district in 2006. The nomination report identifies the Bellevue Theatre as a “key building within the district; a building that possesses distinct architectural and historical significance, and which acts as a landmark within the architectural matrix of the district.”