- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

The District of Columbia will spend more than $5 million to save a historic theater in Columbia Heights that was slated to be torn down and replaced with a supermarket.

The Tivoli Theater an abandoned, 1920s-era movie palace that activists have fought to preserve for 20 years will be restored, with much of the space inside the building converted into offices, developer Joseph Horning III said yesterday.

The Giant Food store that was slated to replace the Tivoli at the corner of Park Road and 14th Street NW still will be built on the 12-acre parcel but will be a few feet away from the theater, said Mr. Horning.

The preservationists who fought to save the 41,000-square-foot theater reacted coolly to the news, saying Mr. Horning’s restoration plan calls for only 6,000 square feet of space in the building to be set aside for arts uses.

“That’s just a drop in the bucket to what the building can support,” said Eric Graye, president of Save the Tivoli Inc., a group that has worked since 1980 to convince the city to restore the theater.

The city has owned the building since 1976. It gave Mr. Horning permission to redevelop the property last year.

He proposed tearing down the rear walls of the theater but saving its distinctive marquee and using it as the facade of a new shopping center to be anchored by the Giant Food store. He also planned to build 29 town houses on the site.

Mr. Graye’s group and other activists opposed the plan, even saying they would not shop at the Giant if the theater were torn down. They pressured D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, whose district includes Columbia Heights, to force Mr. Horning to change his plan.

Mr. Horning said the city has agreed to spend $4 million to help preserve the theater and convert part of its upper floors into office space.

In addition, the District will spend an additional $1.5 million over 20 years to lease 10,000 square feet of the new office space in the Tivoli, he said.

Mr. Horning said the revised plan gives him room to build only 23 town houses. He also said he may not be able to develop additional retail space on the site because the shops would have to be located behind the Giant store, which would leave them partially isolated.

Mr. Horning said it will take more than the $5.5 million from the District to restore the theater. He said he will also have to apply for historic-preservation tax credits and he will need at least one other tenant to commit to leasing office space in the refurbished building.

He said the project would also benefit from the tax-exempt financing it would be eligible for under a bill by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, that asks Congress to name the city a federal enterprise zone.

“There are still a lot of financial hurdles to overcome,” said Mr. Horning.

The new plan was submitted to the city’s Redevelopment Land Agency last week. If it is approved, Mr. Horning said the restoration of the theater would begin in the summer of 2002 and last about one year.

The Tivoli was designed by famed theater architect Thomas W. Lamb and built in 1923. In its heyday, the building was decorated with marble, stained glass, chandeliers and mahogany.

The 1968 riots in D.C. left the Tivoli ravaged, and it closed in 1976. The District bought the building that year.

T. David Bell, president of the D.C. Preservation League, said the Tivoli is one of the best-designed theaters in the city, and is on several historic registries.

Mr. Horning said he is negotiating with several groups including the Washington Opera, the Washington Ballet and the Gay Men’s Chorus to use 6,000 square feet of space in the building for cultural purposes.

Mr. Graye, the president of Save the Tivoli, estimated between 12,000 and 18,000 square feet of space should be devoted to arts uses.

Mr. Graham said it would be difficult to keep the building’s 2,500-seat theater intact because few arts groups need that much space.

“I don’t know of any viable uses for a 2,500-seat theater. I don’t know of any viable uses for a theater half that size,” he said.

Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food, said the new store that will be built next to the Tivoli will feature about 50,000 square feet of retail space, making it comparable to the chain’s most modern stores in the suburbs.

Once the new store opens, Giant will close its existing store on 14th St. NW in Columbia Heights and donate that space to the city, said Mr. Scher.

City officials are also considering a New York developer’s plan to build a 600,000-square-foot shopping center, a 14-screen movie theater and an ice-skating rink across the street from the Tivoli.

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