BY MIKE PERSLEY
In September, a spanish-language church signed a 10-year lease on the Flower Theater, the decaying, uninhabited old movie theater on Flower Avenue in Long Branch.
It was last occupied by another church that left in 2008, and before that it sat empty for nearly a decade.
In leasing the property, the church offered to renovate the vacated theater, to bring its worn structure up to county code, and to bring some sense of life again to it and its surrounding area.
The signing ended a long, ultimately disappointing, effort by Silver Spring residents to fill the space. Over the previous year, residents came up with big ideas about what could become of the old theater, about what it could be to a neighborhood preparing for redevelopment around the Purple line, which is set to build a station one block away.
One group of residents thought they might be onto something special.
Three years ago, in the summer of 2010, the Fenton Street Market organized a charette, an ideas workshop that brought together architects, planners, real estate analysts, and community leaders around the question of “What could become of downtown Silver Spring?”
Nearly 50 people attended and threw out ideas on how the city’s downtown, which had undergone a massive redevelopment in the last decade, could be made even better.
Old theater ad art.
“There were a lot of serious people there,” remembers Dan Reed, a life-long Silver Spring resident, who attended the charette. “It was a good exercise.”
In the end, the ideas brought up at the charette remained just that, ideas, and never came to fruition. But the event itself remained a positive one in the minds of its attendants.
Two years later in 2012 the Fenton Street market director proposed another charette, asking Dan Reed if he’d like to do it again. Reed was interested, but what would it be about?
A friend of his, Amanda Hurley, a freelance architectural writer, suggested the Flower Theater, the old, run-down art-deco movie theater in Long Branch.
“When I was four, I went to go see “Beauty and the Beast” there. I remember going there when it was a second run-movie theater,” Reed remembers. It had been a long time since it was a movie theater.
Zink and Moehle
The Flower Theater opened up in 1950, and was owned by the K-B Organization, a regional chain of movie houses. It was designed by architects John Jacob Zink and Frederick L.W. Moehle, who were responsible for a number of well-loved local theaters such as the Uptown in Washington and the Senator in Baltimore. The theater held 800 seats and opened up with its first film, “Great Lover”, starring Bob Hope.
It also served as an anchor of the Flower Shopping Center, whose tenants included Giant Food and Woolworth’s.
By the 1970s, the demographics and economy of Long Branch began to change rapidly, with an influx of immigrants from around the world. The theaters numbers began a steady decline, and by 1979, K-B closed the theater and sold it to a different owner.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the theatre changed owners twice and at one point was converted into a discount movie house. After closing again in 1996, a local entrepreneur bought the theater and tried to turn it into a cultural arts center before his plans fell through. It remained empty for nearly a decade before being leased by a church for a brief period, which moved out in 2008. The theater has been vacant ever since.
The charette took place on Aug. 4th, 2012. About 25 people attended, a mix of Long Branch residents, business owners from the Long Branch Business League, Montgomery county officials, civic activists and local architects appeared, and about five major ideas emerged.
One was for a market hall, similar to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Union Market in D.C., where local vendors could set up booths at little cost to sell their products, a particularly attractive idea in a neighborhood as ethnically diverse as Long Branch. The hall would also have a dining area along with a small stage for performances.
“The market hall was probably the most popular idea,” said Reed. “The market hall was the one thing that really got people going.”
Other ideas introduced were to recreate the movie theater, a performance art space, a café/bookstore, and mix-used gallery space/conference room available for community groups, meetings or parties.
The group quickly put together a report, entitled ‘In Bloom’, authored by the Flower Theater Project, and along with members of the Montgomery Housing Partnership, approached the owner, Greg Fernebok of Harvey Property Management, with their plans.
They were met with friendly caution.
Costs and other hurdles
At issue were the high costs to renovate the theater, which after years of neglect is in significantly bad shape. Structurally, the theater is sound, but most of the original decorations are gone, along with any of the seats and projection equipment. The roof has significant damage that Fernebok estimates could cost as much as $600 thousand to repair. If anyone were to lease the space, they would have to be able to do so at low cost or be able to invest the money to bring the building up to code.
Also at issue was the neighborhood’s outdated zoning code, which requires 170 parking spots for the theater alone, let alone the businesses that occupy the shopping center.
The church that previously used the theater managed to avoid this trouble spot because churches are by national law exempt from most zoning requirements. If the theater was to again be used for entertainment or business purposes, extra parking spaces would have to be found.
Then the group caught a break.
In December, the Montgomery County Planning Board introduced its Long Branch sector plan, its proposed guidelines for investment in the neighborhood in conjunction with the creation of the Purple Line, which is set to have a station on nearby Arlis street.
The plan called for the rezoning of property from single family to mixed-use and commercial residential zoning. The plan also recommended varied housing options and a connected pedestrian and bicycle network.
Most important was the plan’s recommendation that the Flower Theater and shopping center be designated as a historical site, placing it on the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The designation would protect the theater from significant alterations, and would make it central to the county’s plan for redevelopment along the Purple Line.
Turning and slowing
But just as the energy of fate seemed to be turning their way, the energy behind the theater project was becoming difficult to sustain against the slow movement of the county government.
By spring of 2013, the group’s fervor around the theater began to dissipate. The sector plan, set for approval, was running through the county’s laborious bureaucracy (and was finally set for approval on Oct. 22). Reed, having finished graduate school, began to work full-time, and the monthly meetings the group held at the restaurant El Golfo, a Long Branch staple near the theater, tapered out.
Contact over the summer between Reed and Fernebok was non-existent, until finally, the owner went the pragmatic route and signed the lease to the church.
“I wanted to find a tenant who would be good, who could handle the renovations and take care of the place,” says Fernebok. “I’ve heard nothing but good things. When there’s something there, it brings in new people, brings in new customers.”
Reed, while glad to see the space filled rather than empty, expressed disappointment. “It’s probably better that the building is occupied, but I can tell you that for all of the neighbors I spoke to over the past year, this is the last thing they hoped to see here.”