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A tale of two theaters

Intown communities take opposite view on would-be venues

In a telling sign of the divide between well-heeled Virginia-Highland and ripped-jeans East Atlanta, one neighborhood is pushing to keep its shuttered movie theater from opening as a music venue and convention center, while the other is pulling for its historic theater to become ground-zero for the rock scene.

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The hang-ups plaguing each theater speak volumes about the two neighborhoods. One is trying to keep its partying at bay, having grown weary of the noise, booze and hassle. The other embraces its reputation as a nightlife destination and is doing whatever it can to heighten it.

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For more than a year, the owner of Virginia-Highland's Hilan Theatre has been trying to get a liquor license for the 700-occupancy space that is mostly renovated. But Virginia-Highland neighbors, as well as the Neighborhood Planning Unit that includes Virginia-Highland, have opposed the license. (NPUs make formal, though non-binding, recommendations to the city on issues such as who should be allowed to pour booze.)

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The same thing happened when Peter Conlon wanted to move the Cotton Club from Midtown to the Hilan. The club instead opened downtown, in the basement of the Tabernacle, though it closed in late 2004.

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"There was a huge outpouring from the community," NPU-F Chairwoman Dianne Olansky says of the most recent attempt to open the Hilan. "I know that the residential community doesn't want it."

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The NPU voted against the Hilan's liquor license last summer, claiming the theater would be in violation of a city code requiring that live-music venues operate at a minimum distance from the nearest residential neighbor. The NPU and the Hilan's owner, Jeff Notrica of Inman Park Properties, disagreed over whether the distance should be measured from the building's interior, which abuts the sidewalk and would place it too close to the nearest home, or from the lobby door, which is on the side of the building and would meet the code's requirements.

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"My understanding is the city attorney's office and Jeff Notrica's office continue to look for ways to find some sort of solution that everybody can live with," says John Croft, vice president of the Virginia-Highland Civic Association. "So far, they haven't found it."

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Notrica would not expand on Croft's statement. When asked about the irony that his ready-to-open theater is facing opposition while East Atlanta is eagerly awaiting a tenant for the shoddier Madison Theater, Notrica responds, "It's just kind of amazing." If he could pick up the Hilan and drop it in the Madison's place, "Oh, believe me, I would have done that a long time ago," Notrica says.

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The Madison has waited for years for the right tenant to come along. The white-spired, late-1920s building is located a few doors down Flat Shoals Avenue from the Earl. The theater has been closed for decades, but its charm and potential have inspired a handful of would-be tenants. Reggie Ealy, who opened Midtown clubs Yin Yang and Kaya in the 1990s (they've since reopened as Apache Cafe and Vision, respectively), made a stab at the project but later abandoned it.

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It is structurally sound, according to Steve Patrick of Coro Realty, who is subleasing the property on behalf of the current leaseholder, who had partnered with Ealy. Patrick estimates that bringing the building up to code, with new plumbing, electric and air-conditioning systems, will cost $500,000.

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In the year that Patrick has been advertising the space, he's heard from five "serious" prospects, all of whom intended to restore the grand auditorium as a music venue. And on July 15, he showed the space to a sixth interested party.

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But Patrick says all but one of the five initial prospects have dropped out due to the challenge of securing financing.

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Still, one major hurdle for the Madison has been cleared. Ealy was able to secure enough parking spaces to meet the city's strict parking requirements.

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There's also the fact that the neighborhood is rooting for the theater. It's therefore highly unlikely that the project will receive any opposition from East Atlanta business or community groups, or from the area's NPU. "I would love to have that theater active again," NPU-W Chairman Ed Gilgor says. "I think a lot of people frankly would be interested in some collaboration on that."

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As East Atlanta sees ever rising home prices and more and more businesses (two additional restaurants and the neighborhood's sixth bar are in the works), Patrick is hoping that reopening the Madison will become irresistible, despite the expense. "The reality is, everything around the theater is getting better and better," Patrick says. "I think that's even going to make it a better venue in the long run."




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