By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair will embark on an investigation to see if the block of the Bellevue Theatre should be deemed an area in need of rehabilitation.
“It gives some flexibility in creating a plan to enable them to develop the property and save the theater,” Township Attorney Ira Karasick said, adding that tax incentives could also be granted.
But the lengthy process to make such a designation could postpone the reopening of the 99-year-old theater in the heart of Upper Montclair.
The Township Council voted unanimously on July 13 to authorize the Planning Board to investigate the theater property, to assess if it meets the criteria for the designation.
Shuttered since 2017, the Bellevue Theatre is expected to reopen by early next year, owner Doreen Sayegh said at a press conference held 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. Doreen Sayegh was not available for comment on the possibility of a rehabilitation designation.
According to state statute, 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. Once the designation is made, tools to encourage rehabilitation can be put into place, including design reconstruction standards and a property tax abatement program on improvements.
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 in the area are at least 50 years old.
A program of rehabilitation, as defined by the statute, may be expected to prevent further deterioration and promote the overall development of the community.
The resolution directs the Planning Board and Planning Department to undertake a preliminary investigation of the area for redevelopment criteria and to conduct a public hearing. The Planning Board would then make a recommendation to the council as to whether it should designate part or all of the area as in need of redevelopment, or decline to make the designation.
If the council decides to move ahead, it would adopt a binding resolution designating all or part of the area and authorize the preparation of a redevelopment plan, which could be sent to the Planning Board for suggestions. That plan could include density and height restrictions, parking plans and zoning updates. It could also include an agreement for payments in lieu of taxes.
Currently the Bellevue is in a neighborhood commercial zone, where movie theaters are not normally permitted. But the Bellevue has operated as a theater since 1922, and in 1997 the Zoning Board approved an application to expand it, continuing that use and citing the long history.
No parking is available or planned for the site. Montclair requires one off-street parking space for every four theater seats.
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. As an area in need of rehabilitation, the township could (not necessarily will) do a redevelopment plan, and there are certain short-term tax options in the law. I believe that the owner is supportive,” Karasick wrote in an email to Montclair Local after the meeting.
The Bellevue operated continuously for 95 years until its closure four years ago, when Bow Tie Cinemas ended a 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. 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, and Highgate withdrew a Planning Board application originally expected to be approved just before the pandemic.
Jesse Sayegh told Montclair Local in January that even though Highgate’s plans for the facility had fallen through, he was committed to preserving the building.
In May, Doreen Sayegh said the owners plan to keep the facility at four theaters, with one having a stage for live performances, as well as add residential units. The theaters will 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.
Plans also call for adding housing and two retail locations, but that will be in the future, Doreen Sayegh said in May.
Planner Janice Talley said that plans for the Bellevue were submitted, but were later pulled to be amended and resubmitted. She did not provide the dates the plans were submitted and pulled. The Planning Department has not yet received amended plans, Talley said.