Closing credits, part deux

City fast-tracks corporate-theater subsidy as activists organize to ‘Save the Tower’

Photo By Larry Dalton

A $10 million-plus proposal to build Century Theatres a new “art house” theater on K Street shows no sign of slowing down, despite loud opposition from neighborhood groups and business owners who say the massive city subsidy will mean the end of the historic Tower Theatre. [See “Closing credits” by Cosmo Garvin, SN&R Cover, March 25.]

Even as critics of the proposal prepare for a rally and protest this Thursday evening to “Save the Tower,” Century is already advertising its CinéArts project on K Street as if it were a done deal. “Opening Soon!” is how the Century Theatres CinéArts Web site ( describes the proposed art house that would go in at 10th and K streets.

Aside from Century’s optimistic prediction, two different parts of the $10 million proposal—the CinéArts project and another 12-screen “mainstream” theater in Downtown Plaza—already have been sent to the city’s Design Review Board, suggesting that City Hall wants to keep to a tight schedule, despite opposition from neighborhood groups and historic preservationists who have pleaded with the city to slow the process down.

“These are steps that don’t have to be pursued so quickly. It definitely seems like they’re fast-tracking it,” said Jim Seyman, who owns the Tower Cafe, a neighbor to the Tower Theatre. “They seem to want to get it done before the public can really look at it.”

Seyman and others have been harshly critical of the proposal, saying that by giving Century a brand-new CinéArts facility and free rent for two years (and rent far below market rates for another eight years), the city essentially would be helping to kill off Century’s competitor, the Tower.

Late last month, the city council, after some hand-wringing about the potential effects on the Tower, gave the city’s Downtown Development Group authority to enter into exclusive negotiations with Century. At the time, city staff was directed to come up with some sort of “mitigation” plan for the Tower, to help offset any damage to the theater as a result of the CinéArts project. The owners of the Tower, Reading International Inc., feel that Century will snap up the most popular art and independent films, which the Tower needs to exhibit to pay the bills.

The mitigation plan is supposed to assure a “win-win” for Tower, the city and Century. But after meeting with the Downtown Development Group last week, Reading International’s chief operating officer, Ellen Cotter, didn’t sound optimistic. “Once you take away our main source of revenue, there’s not a lot else we can do,” Cotter explained.

Backers of the proposal continue to assert that attempts to block the project will do nothing to help the Tower. “We’re really having the wrong conversation right now,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, the influential central-city business group that strongly supports the project. “If Century doesn’t do this project, they are still going to show art and independent films.” Ault said the city should be focused on how Century’s new interest in indie films can help revitalize a blighted stretch of K Street that once housed a Woolworth’s department store.

But it seems very unlikely that Century would be interested in breaking into the art-film market here without considerable financial help from the city. Century had no plan to build a CinéArts theater here before the city approached it about doing a project at 10th and K streets. And Ault conceded that there was a difference between a dedicated art house and the mix of films Century would show in a conventional theater. “I think there would be crossover. But do I think they’d show [art and independent films] at the same level? No.”

Whatever Century’s level of interest in indie films (the company has refused to answer any questions from SN&R), Seyman said the city shouldn’t help Century to the detriment of the Tower. “I’ve got no problem with free enterprise. If they want to put their money up, then let them,” Seyman explained. “If we could just get rid of the subsidy, I think that the Tower will be fine.”

Seyman and other members of the Tower District Alliance neighborhood/business group will be holding a “Save the Tower” rally and protest Thursday evening at 5 p.m., April 29, in hopes of increasing public pressure on the council to drop the Century subsidy plan. Sacramento band Mumbo Gumbo is scheduled to play. St. Hope founder Kevin Johnson, longtime political figure Grantland Johnson and sculptors Peter and Camille VandenBerge, among others, are expected to attend the rally in support. If the protests don’t impress the city council, there’s always the chance that Save the Tower agitation could scare the movie chain off the project.

“I am concerned that we’re going to send the wrong message to Century,” said Ault. “The longer this debate gets dragged out, the more concerned we would be that Century just wouldn’t want to wait around.”

If the Century project does fall through, it seems there are other businesses eager to take over the old Woolworth’s building, at a much lower cost to the city.

Mike Sarimsakci, owner of the Bay Area-based Black Sea Gallery furniture stores, said he has been in contact with city staff several times to express his desire to develop the blighted block. Sarimsakci is proposing a project similar to the renovation of an old Woolworth’s building in downtown San Jose. The project would include a retail furniture store, a cafe and perhaps 10 apartments or lofts on the second floor. “I’d love to do it. [City officials] know we are very interested. And it can be done without any public subsidy,” Sarimsacki explained. He did say that his company would ask for a “substantial discount” on the purchase price of the city-owned former Woolworth’s building. The city purchased the building for $2.3 million, still far less than the more than $10 million being considered for the Century Theatre proposal.