Suburban World Theater sits empty

Featured, Hennepin-Lake, Policy — By on December 5, 2012 9:00 am

The Star Tribune provided some insight into why the Suburban World Theater in Uptown sits vacant despite Uptown’s big retail boom going on around it. The article cites the listing agent saying that the property has plenty of interest “but the cliffhanger is it’s [historic] and not everybody knows that. So once they dig into talking to the city about it, they don’t even come close to touching it.”

For background, the inside of the theater is an incredible space with Mediterranean-inspired walls that make way to a star-studded sky of a ceiling. It was built in the 1920s and was a movie theater playing decent films most of that time. I remember watching Titanic there in the 1990s when it was still operated by Mann Theaters. Later it became a Cinema Grill and then the most-recent owner tried to broaden the space into an event center.

Historic Preservation as a barrier?

While historic preservation concerns from possible tenants certainly will be an issue in its reuse, I find it hard to believe it is the reason why it’s been sitting vacant. The real issue is likely economics. The previous owner bought the building after it failed as a Cinema Grill. As an outsider, it didn’t appear that much was invested in making the space a viable event center, which is what the owner was trying to operate. There is minimal lighting on the inside, which makes events using a speaker less desirable.

A pair of garage-style flood lights provided general lighting. As I was told by real estate insiders, this was the result of the historic preservation requirements that the walls and ceilings remaining in their historic condition. Those sources indicated that they believe that the lighting could be solved but would require creative approaches that would likely be significantly more expensive than standard approaches.

If a new tenant wants to gut the space and start over, then absolutely the historic preservation would be in the way. But that aside, could the property be used with the walls and ceiling largely remaining untouched?

Or is something else in the way?

As I understand it, the previous owner lost the property in foreclosure to the bank and now the bank is trying to sell the property. A number of users have looked at the property, and according to the Star Tribune, that list includes a church, bar, restaurants, and yoga studio.

One user that considered the property, one of my sources said, felt that it was too small to make it viable as an event space or performance venue. The crux of that user’s concern was that they would need to sell alcohol to make money but in doing so, would be required by the City to make 60% of their food/beverage revenue from non-alcohol sales. This would require their concept to be food-heavy and for those who know entertainment, people don’t tend to go dine while watching concerts or performances…they drink.

What to do?

The City is dotted with shuttered theaters across its neighborhoods. Some have been revived (Parkway), converted (Varsity), or lost to the wrecking ball (Oak Street Theater). Others sit vacant, such as the Suburban World in Uptown, El Lago in Lyn-Lake, or Hollywood in Northeast. These buildings have tremendous civic value, as they often are architecturally interesting, have cultural significance to the community, and were public gathering spots.

I think it is time we re-evaluate our liquor laws and have a conversation about whether entertainment venues should have some exemptions from the 60/40 food to alcohol rules. This would lead to all sorts of questions, such as:

- what sort of entertainment should receive that exemption?

- could the venue be open as a bar during non-performance times and if so, how much?

- should the city, and how would the city try to be fair with establishments offering non-exempt entertainment?

- how to address livability concerns given that new unrestricted liquor establishments can’t open outside of Downtown now (generally) and it would be a new experience for many residents near commercial property?

- should this exemption only be made in certain zoning districts with certain conditions that must be met, such as how close they are to residential property?

There is a lot to consider but there are potential upsides, such as:

- reusing difficult properties.

- providing amenities to the city in the form of entertainment destinations.

- increasing jobs at the neighborhood level.

- creating additional foot traffic for adjacent businesses.

- increased property tax base through the successful reuse of property.

- supporting the arts by expanding the venue base.

I am advocating that this conversation should take place, as I think it is more appropriate for the Suburban World Theater to be reused as an entertainment venue than to become a yoga studio or an Old Navy outlet (please help me). At least reuse hasn’t brought us an adult movie theater like what happened to theaters across the United States in the 1960s/1970s.

Thatcher Imboden

How cities work and change, how they are the product of their inhabitants and outside forces, and the resulting livability keep me thinking and dreaming about the future. I work in transit oriented development and have a background in urban real estate development. I am Past President of an Uptown business organization, grew up in Uptown, was on an Uptown neighborhood association Board, and am an Uptown and Lyn-Lake historian.

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3 Comments

  1. Thatcher Imboden says:

    I will add another thought. A work around on the 60/40 would be for a buyer to also purchase/lease the Amazing Thailand space and then operate the Suburban World Theater as an event space of the restaurant in Amazing Thailand. It could be Amazing Thailand as it currently is for that matter.

    This is what the Varsity does from what I understand. The Loring Pasta Bar provides food to the Varsity but as someone who’s been to the Varsity many times, there’s no way that place is doing 60/40, so it may be possible they’ve found a work around by using the income from the pasta bar to help offset the liquor sales at the Varsity.

    I am not a huge fan of work arounds and would rather just correct the underlying problem, which is not every business outside of Downtown should be restricted to 60/40. But I suppose the new taprooms was an incredible work around of that, in retrospect.

  2. David St. Michael says:

    What is the purpose of 60/40, anyway? Does it have to be the law or can it be revamped? Also, that space would do well as a nonprofit theater, such as The Hollywood in Portland, Oregon. Ah. If only. :)

  3. mark hebert says:

    Hi…just an fyi…the El Lago is not on Lyndale; that’s the Lyndale Theatre. The El Lago is still standing at East Lake Street at approx. 35th Ave.

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