Guest Opinion: Housing could resurrect Park Theatre | April 5, 2006 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - April 5, 2006

Guest Opinion: Housing could resurrect Park Theatre

by Kelly Fergusson

Recently proposed development projects along El Camino Real could revitalize downtown Menlo Park — and are opportunities to bring new life to the historic 1947 Park Theatre.

The shuttered movie house has faced challenges due to its location, at the north edge of the city's core commercial district.

But with proposals for new condominium housing and retail across the street and around the corner, the Park could be in the heart of the action. With its period "Art Moderne" architecture, the theater could take its rightful place as a major destination along "The Royal Road."

A reopened Park would boost Menlo Park's somewhat sleepy nightlife, drawing moviegoers, shoppers and diners downtown. What we need is a plan and public support for that plan.

But given a second life, would the Park Theatre succeed? Nationwide, movie box office revenues significantly declined last year, and film exhibitors are not exactly booming. I think it would succeed.

Both the Park and the Guild, its sister theater down the street, have catered to upscale, educated audiences, showing independent and foreign films that may fill small houses but rarely break attendance records.

Movie exhibition is a low-margin business, and faces stiff challenges in a high-rent area such as downtown Menlo Park. How do we deal with this reality?

The short answer is to build the Park Theatre into the El Camino Real redevelopment plan. The theater will need restoration and a business model for long-term operations.

In terms of what such a plan might look like, we may find some options surprisingly close to home. San Mateo and Redwood City used various incentives to lure multiplex cinemas into their downtowns. Alameda's City Council voted to buy a dilapidated art deco theater to help revive its downtown. Another art deco movie house in San Rafael is run by the nonprofit Mill Valley Film Festival.

Palo Alto Square benefits from a theater-only zoning requirement, and the specialized Stanford Theatre operates with foundation help. Redwood City's Fox Theatre hosts both films and live performances.

Developers looking to build higher densities than normally allowed along El Camino (or elsewhere) are potential financial participants in a theater restoration, if restoration "pencils out" profitably to their plans.

In imagining the reopened Park Theatre, think of the long lines of eager filmgoers waiting on University Avenue outside the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto. A popular movie house would bring the crowds back to downtown Menlo Park.

We can find a business model that works for us. Meanwhile, as a community, we have work to do. The first task is to make our voices heard. Please let me know how you feel about reopening the Park Theater, by e-mail or note to 701 Laurel St., or leave a message at (650) 330-6634.

If the Park reopened, would you attend films there? What sort? How often? What about performing arts and authors? Teen night? Bands?

I will compile your responses into a report to the City Council, available to all interested parties, including local developers.

The Park Theatre has been part of our history. Let's make it part of our future.

Kelly Fergusson is mayor pro tem of Menlo Park. She can be e-mailed at