By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
The Montclair Planning Board has recommended that the Bellevue Theatre property be deemed an area in need of rehabilitation — with one caveat. The members of the board are requesting that they write up the redevelopment plan.
Either the Planning Board or Township Council can write up such a plan, and the decision as to which will handle it falls with the council, Planner Janice Talley said.
On July 13, the Township Council voted unanimously to authorize the Planning Board to investigate the theater property, to assess if it meets the criteria for the designation, which could smooth the process of getting approvals needed to redevelop the theater. On Aug. 24, planning board members approved a recommendation for the designation, with Councilwoman Robin Schlager and Mayor Sean Spiller both abstaining, as they had voted it through as members of the council.
The council still has the final vote on the designation. If that’s approved, a redevelopment agreement would then be drafted.
Closed since 2017, the Bellevue Theatre was expected to reopen by fall or early next year, according to owner Doreen Sayegh, who held a press conference in front of the theater on May 13.
After a previous development plan fell through, Sayegh, who is also the Bellevue Theatre president, said she and her father, Jesse Sayegh, want to revive and reopen the 1922 theater with a focus on community and the arts. She said at the time they were also looking into more retail on the first floor, and adding apartments on the second floor.
Currently, the Bellevue is in a neighborhood commercial zone, where movie theaters are not permitted. But the Bellevue has operated as a theater since 1922, and in 1997 the Montclair Township Zoning Board of Adjustment approved an application to expand it, continuing that use and citing its long history.
No parking is available or planned for the site. Montclair’s zoning requires one off-street parking space for every four theater seats.
The redevelopment agreement could allow a theater as a permitted use and could bypass parking requirements. It also could require certain design standards in order to maintain the historical quality of the building and could ease height restrictions. And finally it would allow for phased in tax abatement on the building over five years, which would grant the developers time to invest in the building, Talley said.
“The council recognizes that theaters are going through a hard time. The council wants to help in giving them a shot at this,” Talley said.
The general purpose for designating a rehabilitation area 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.
Current annual taxes on the property of $66,506 are up to date, according to tax records.
The Bellevue Theatre area investigation was initiated to provide options for reopening the movie theater, Township Attorney Ira Karasick wrote in an email to Montclair Local, adding that the owner is supportive of the designation.
The Bellevue operated for 95 years until its closure four years ago, when Bow Tie Cinemas ended its lease there.
Plans were presented in 2017 by Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC to renovate the four-theater facility into six theaters, a restaurant and a bar and raise the height of the structure. But that application was pulled in January, when Jesse Sayegh terminated Bellevue Enterprises/Highgate Hall LLC’s lease due to what he said at the time was a breach of contract. Highgate withdrew its application with the zoning board, which was previously expected to be approved just before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Current plans call for keeping the facility at four theaters, with one having a stage for live performances, as well as adding residential units, Doreen Sayegh said previously. The theaters would have to be completely renovated with new equipment and seats, as Bow Tie stripped the theaters, taking the screens, projectors and the seats when it left, Jesse Sayegh said in January.
Talley said that plans for the Bellevue were submitted, but were later pulled to be amended and resubmitted. If the redevelopment plan allows for a theater use, those plans would then go through the planning board for approval.