BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Bellevue Theatre owner says he is considering a residential and retail project with a theater on the ground level, after plans to renovate the historic theater fell through last week.
Three years in the making, plans to renovate the facility into six theaters, a restaurant and a bar officially ended a week ago, when owner Jesse Sayegh terminated Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC’s lease due to “breach of contract,” he told Montclair Local.
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. The application was expected to be approved in March of last year, the same month the pandemic hit. Another hearing was never rescheduled and months dragged on.
On Friday, the group consisting of Luke Parker Bowles, Patrick Wilson, Brandon Jones, Andy Childs, Larry Slous, Vincent Onorati and Steven Plofker wrote to Montclair Local: “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.”
Sayegh said the group attempted to make “a lot of demands that no rational landlord would accept.” Sayegh, in the theater business for years, conceded that the pandemic had devastated the industry. But said that he was the one carrying the risk for the project, and had to carry the taxes, insurance and maintenance over the last three years, while losing the small income provided by previous tenants such as a hair salon.
He did not elaborate on what the group was asking for or what it had been paying in rent.
“I was taking most of the risk. The theater business was in trouble before the pandemic hit. The pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. Streaming has killed the industry further,” Sayegh said.
“Why would people want to risk being in a theater with others when they can get family and friends together to watch a movie on the big screen at home? Days of the local theater may be over.”
Since the area is zoned for housing and retail, Sayegh said he will seek approval from the town to renovate the existing building into retail and a theater/auditorium on the first floor and residential units on the second and third floors.
“The building will not be torn down. It will be preserved,” he said.
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 has never been offered on-site, which would have to be addressed through the planning board.
The theater has been shuttered since November 2017, when then-tenant Bow Tie Cinemas declined to renew its lease. Bow Tie removed all the interior components before vacating the building, Sayegh said. In June 2019, Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall announced its intention to renovate and reopen the nearly century-old Bellevue Avenue landmark.
Ilmar Vanderer who created Save Montclair’s Historic Bellevue Theatre Facebook page and has taken a volunteer role working with the theater’s owner to find a new tenant or buyer, said it has always come with an understanding that some sort of cinema component would be retained in the building.
“I have never had any reasons to doubt that he would follow through on his pledge and commitment to that,” Vanderer said. “It’s in the collective interest of the Montclair community to be encouraging, supportive and open-minded about the owner’s plans because right now this building isn’t doing anyone any good by being mothballed indefinitely.”
The building has some protection from demolition by laws created last year regulating more oversight and approval by the historic preservation commission of demolition permits. A historic structure is defined as one designated as such by federal, state or local bodies or one that falls within a historic or potentially historic district. Structures with direct links to historical people or events could also be considered historic.
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.”