In Parkway Theater’s lingering absence, the fragility of an urban neighborhood
on September 15, 2009
When Woody’s Laundromat & Café owner Steve Ma looks out the window of his Park Boulevard business just east of Lake Merritt, he no longer sees long lines, chattering crowds, or an incandescent marquee across the street. Now, when Ma gazes out at the defunct remnants of the old Parkway Theater, he sees a padlocked metal gate stretched across its entrance, plywood-covered windows, and graffiti where posters once advertised coming attractions. Warping, peeling signs advertise OFFICE FOR RENT on the second floor.
“It’s a sad memory, looking at that, especially at nighttime,” said Ma, who has been doing business on the block for 26 years and currently serves as chair of the Lake Merritt Business Association. “When that light turned off, it was a really sad mood. The past thirteen years the place was always lit up until after twelve or one o’clock.”
Catherine and Kyle Fischer, business partners who would go on to marry, began renting the theater in 1996 and spent several months refurbishing the property before opening it as the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in January 1997. Their “picture-pub-pizza” Speakeasy Theaters brand -– combining an eclectic variety of films with beer, homemade food, and stuffed couches and chairs -– soon became a wild success. By all accounts, it played a key role in revitalizing the neighborhood.
“When we moved in,” said Kyle Fischer, “there were fifteen pay phones up and down the block because all people did there was sell crack cocaine.”
Ma moved his business from down the street around the same time. “I always told the Fischers, ‘You and I came in thirteen years ago and we basically lit up this end of the block,’” he said. “Before, it was like a ghost town –- very dark and unsafe, fighting, shooting. People were actually afraid to go down there. When the Parkway came in it really put this neighborhood on the map. Customers came all the way from Marin, San Rafael, Berkeley, Contra Costa County.”
But on March 22 of this year, the Parkway closed its doors following a complicated and at times acrimonious series of events involving an ambitious expansion and what the Fischers characterize as a breach of faith by officials from the nearby town of El Cerrito. Nearly six months later, the theater is still vacant. A recent controversial bid to open a massage parlor in the space seems to have fallen through. Various potential operators have shown interest in re-opening the theater, but negotiations with the building’s owners have been hampered by the structure’s dire need for expensive repairs. In the meantime, neighbors -– some of whom say they have already noticed a decline in the neighborhood -– continue to pass by the hulking empty edifice daily, hoping for the best.
Downfall of a Local Institution
Perhaps the greatest irony in the ongoing saga of the Parkway Theater is that, according to its owners, the Parkway was a perfectly viable business that could have remained open for a long time.
“The Parkway had to close because of the Cerrito,” said Catherine Fischer, referring to the former Cerrito Speakeasy Theater, which she and Kyle opened in El Cerrito in 2006.
In 2001, El Cerrito city officials approached the Fischers about opening another Speakeasy theater, applying the Parkway’s picture-pub-pizza mold to a dilapidated old theater in their small East Bay town. The Fischers expressed interest in expanding the Speakeasy brand as well, but said they didn’t have the resources to renovate the old building in El Cerrito while simultaneously keeping the Parkway afloat. The city later came back with a sweeter deal that, according to the Fischers, should have allowed them to expand their business without overextending through a unique public-private collaboration.
“We drained the money out of the Parkway for the Cerrito because the city of El Cerrito said they would pay us back for what we spent,” said Kyle Fischer.
The Fischers say they had other reasons for wanting to expand beyond the Parkway, as well –- primarily a contentious relationship with their new Oakland landlords that seemed strained from the beginning. Yan and Judy Cheng of San Francisco have owned the Parkway building since 2002, according to Alameda County records.
“Our first introduction was they sent an attorney to the Parkway and said ‘You’re going to pay more rent,’” said Kyle Fischer. “We said, ‘Well, we’re already under a lease.’ He said ‘Well, we’ll sue you.’ We had never even met them, and that was our introduction…Good times.”
The Fischers say this was the beginning of a long string of disagreements with the Chengs over lease terms and payment for maintenance problems including corroded plumbing, faulty electrical wiring, and a holey roof. Multiple parties confirm that these are still major renovation issues with the property, though repeated efforts to interview the Chengs, who speak Cantonese but very limited English, were hindered by communication difficulties.
The Fischers decided to expand Speakeasy Theaters to El Cerrito, only to see things go sour with the city. “Had we known that the city of El Cerrito was not going to do what they promised, we would have stayed with the Parkway in a heartbeat,” Catherine Fischer said of the decision to put so much of the Parkway’s profits into the Cerrito. “By the time we realized they weren’t going to, the Parkway had closed.”
El Cerrito redevelopment manager Lori Treviño countered that Speakeasy’s problems were the result of an inability to run the Cerrito profitably and that her city did not betray the Fischers. “When they got into operation they weren’t able to maintain a cash flow,” Treviño said. “They seemed to be under the impression that we were going to give them money to fund their operation to stay afloat. We did not have an agreement to help them stay afloat.”
But no matter what did or didn’t happen between the Fischers and El Cerrito, the Cerrito Speakeasy would close soon after the Parkway, though it has since reopened under a new operator.
Nevertheless, Catherine Fischer says Oakland’s Parkway –- even with its continuing major renovation needs –- would “definitely” still be around had it not been for Speakeasy’s ill-fated foray into El Cerrito. “If you keep putting a new Band-Aid on everyday you can stay like that for a long time,” she said. “It’s just when you run out of money for Band-Aids…”
A Neighborhood Adjusts
When the band-aid money did run out and the Parkway turned off its lights, public reaction was outspoken and widespread.
“Everyday I still hear about the Parkway from people telling me it was their favorite movie theater,” former Speakeasy programmer and publicist Will Viharo said recently. “It’s been what, five months? I get it all over the Bay Area, walking in San Francisco, everywhere.”
While out-of-towners mourn the loss of their preferred cinema, it’s those in the now-empty Parkway’s immediate area who feel the theater’s absence most. Lempi Miller, an Oakland resident since 2001, says she and her husband bought a house in the east Lake Merritt area a year ago partly because of its proximity to the Parkway. She says they were “traumatized” when the theater closed in March.
“Since the Parkway closed, it’s seemed to bring the area down a notch,” Miller said. “It seems like there’s more crime, more loitering, and it’s really detracted from the neighborhood.”
Oakland officials are paying attention to the Parkway’s status, as well. “The neighborhood there has always had a certain level of that stuff, but it probably has gotten worse to some extent,” said City Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who represents the district. “It’s not good to have an empty, vacant, big building on a street. The area tends to get blighted, so it is a big deal. It’s the biggest space in the neighborhood and it serves as an anchor business.”
Katie Heartwright, who has lived some three blocks east of the Parkway for the past two years, says the building’s nearly six-month vacancy affects her daily. “I don’t even walk down there by myself at night now because there’s just a lot more vagrancy, panhandling, debris, and garbage,” said Heartwright. “It was a wonderful place, but now it’s just an empty shell that’s being destroyed.”
Woody’s owner Steve Ma also expressed his trepidation about an extended dormancy across the street. “If that movie theater does not open up soon, if this drags on another year or two, I’m afraid the neighborhood will see a more negative effect,” he said.
Discussing the Parkway’s continued emptiness and what it could mean for the area, the man who co-operated the theater for more than a decade invoked, like Kernighan, the b-word so dreaded in matters of urban planning.
“That neighborhood is going to suffer drastically if the Parkway doesn’t reopen,” said Kyle Fischer. “It’s just too big and creates too much of a blight to leave closed.”
No Quick Fixes
But just how long the Parkway may stay closed remains a mystery. An East Bay businessman with extensive movie theater experience says he is currently talking to the Chengs, owners of the Parkway building. An encouraging sign, but hopes were similarly raised some months ago when an out-of-state group called Motion Picture Heritage Corporation was reported to be in negotiations to take over theater operations before talks subsequently broke down. A recent proposal to open a massage parlor drew the ire of many neighbors and appears to have been deep-sixed after the applicant withdrew her petition.
Talks with neighbors, local businesspeople, and city officials do make one thing clear: the overwhelming desire of all involved to fill the space with another theater operator emulating Speakeasy’s unique appeal. A grassroots group called I Like The Parkway that formed in the wake of the theater’s closing now has more than 1,000 active members on its mailing list, according to Peter Prato, one the group’s lead organizers.
But the fate of the Parkway is out of anyone’s real control, save for a very few people, says Councilmember Kernighan. “It’s ultimately a business decision between the building owner and a movie operator,” she said. “They have to agree on the economic terms of the lease; things like how much the rent will be and who is going to pay for the repairs. The city can’t control it, the community can’t control it, it just has to be a private decision between two parties and that so far has not worked out.”
The Fischers know the Parkway’s state of disrepair as well as anyone, having spent more than twelve years Band-Aiding a place where “every time it rained outside it rained inside,” says Kyle Fischer, who added that he worries about the effect the building’s lingering vacancy will have on its condition.
“I can imagine the Parkway’s in really bad shape now,” he said. “If something’s not done with the Parkway in the next five or six months, nothing’s ever going to be done with the Parkway. And that’s unfortunate.”
Catherine Fischer said she could imagine the damage that would come with the first autumn rains. “It’s one thing when the roof leaks and you have buckets to collect the water and you’re dumping them everyday,” she said. “That’s bad enough. But if you don’t have the buckets because nobody’s there everyday, the rain then just comes in and sits on the floors and it comes down the walls and hurts the electricity.”
One of the problems in negotiating responsibility for the renovations, says Kernighan, is that no one knows for sure exactly how much the repairs will cost, though Kyle Fischer guessed it could add up to $500,000. “There hasn’t been a real detailed estimate,” Kernighan said. “There needs to be a really detailed estimate, which would probably involve going in there and opening up walls and really seeing exactly what needs to be done.”
As for whether the Chengs, as landlords, or a future operator bears legal responsibility for repair work, Kernighan said, “There are no actual rules or laws. The two parties can agree on what they think makes business sense to them.” That means either party can disagree on what doesn’t make sense to them, as well, which seems to be the sticking point.
“It’s up to he business operator how much of an upgrade they feel they need,” she said. “The Chengs haven’t had the cash to put into it themselves and movie operators are hesitant to make their own large investment because they don’t own the building and it may not make business sense without a very, very long lease.”
As an art and cultural space, Kernighan said, the Parkway would be eligible to receive a loan or small grant toward sprucing up the theater, but even that brings potential pitfalls. “The maximum loan the city could make to the owners is $250,000, which would have to be secured by the building,” Kernighan said. “The Chengs are wary to do that because there is a lot of risk involved for them.”
Alameda resident Mark Haskett says he has been talking to the Chengs for weeks about taking over operations, though he declined to discuss details of the process. Haskett ran Central Cinema, a neighborhood movie house in Alameda, for four years before being pushed out in 2008 by the opening of the multi-screen Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
“I am currently in lease negotiations with the Chengs, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take the theater,” he said. “But I will say that I have a positive attitude about the future. If things go smoothly, I think the Parkway is a community jewel that could be reopened.”
Everyone agrees the Parkway was and could again be a light in the community. But for now, rain seeps undeterred through a leaky roof, Lempi Miller and Katie Heartwright pass by their defunct neighborhood hub, and Woody’s owner Steve Ma stares across Park Boulevard at graffiti and a padlocked metal gate. As possible tenants are mentioned and fade away, negotiations continue to drag on between the building’s owners and prospective operators. But Kernighan remains optimistic the neighborhood will persevere.
“That’s a tough little neighborhood that’s survived through thick and thin,” she said. “They’ve weathered a lot of storms. They’ll weather this one too.”
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