Historic Parkway Theater on track to open as cannabis lounge
on May 3, 2019
Holding his Samsung cell phone up for light, Bill Koziol weaves up the dark steps into the Parkway Theater’s old projection room. His feet slide on top of the dirt and dust-covered carpet as he enters a small space that smells as ancient as it looks. “So these are the old projectors,” he says, gesturing to two large black machines that are surrounded by remnants of the past: metal film reels and boxes of tapes.
“I don’t even know what shit is up there,” says Koziol, as he rummages in a pile, pulling up a few labeled films. “Ghosts of the Mississippi. My Life in Ruins.”
The historic Parkway Theater has sat vacant for 10 years, but an effort—led by Koziol—is underway to transform the space into a cannabis lounge, where visitors can smoke, eat and maybe watch a movie in the comfort of booths and plush couches. “I just can’t wait to turn the sign back on the roof,” says Koziol with a smile, referring to the three-dimensional neon letters that sit on top of the building.
Until the end of 2018, Koziol and the other members of Telegraph Patients Group ran a pot dispensary in downtown Oakland cheekily called Telegraph Health Center (THC). But after a lengthy legal dispute over the lease, the dispensary closed at the end of the year. Since then, Koziol, a former certified public accountant (CPA) and real estate investor, has been looking for a new location. “Twenty-five staff lost their job when the old site closed,” said Koziol, who’s been working non-stop to find an alternative site where he can rehire his employees.
Kozoil has already scored several significant victories in his quest to reopen the Parkway. Although at least a half dozen parties have tried, Koziol is the only one to have secured a lease, according to the couple who have owned the property since 1996, Yan and Judy Cheng. Koziol signed the agreement in January.
Through a translator, Yan Cheng explained by phone that he frequently receives calls from people interested in renting the Parkway, but few have the finances to invest in it. Cheng said he signed a lease with Koziol because “he has the business basics. He’s a businessman.”
And in early April, Koziol scored another victory. The Oakland City Administrator’s office approved Koziol’s request to open a cannabis lounge and transfer THC’s cannabis dispensary permit from the Telegraph location to the old Parkway Theater.
Despite two big wins, the restoration and reopening of the Parkway is far from certain. The project still needs several other permits, including a conditional use permit to hold large gatherings. Koziol applied to the city’s planning department in February but has yet to hear back. More substantially, Koziol also needs to do a total overhaul of the nearly century-old structure, which he says is currently unusable.
Vandals ripped out wiring, so the electrical system needs revamping. The roof is leaking in several spots, and there’s a pond filled with garbage in the storage area below the original movie screen. The floor is scratched and burned in places. The entire facility is filled with junk from theaters past, including a monitor from a bulky desktop computer, and a single size 11 black high heel.
“There’s not much that’s savable,” says Koziol, walking past the lobby wall that’s covered with graffiti and will need repainting.
Still, Koziol has an idea of how the space will work once it’s reopened. Only those 21 years and older will be allowed inside, because he doesn’t plan to create separate sections for movie watching and pot smoking—he envisions it as one interconnected space, flowing from lobby to dispensary to theater. “It doesn’t work unless we build a wall and section off the marijuana, and that would ruin the vibe,” says Koziol.
Patrons will check in with security at the door and then enter the theater lobby. They’ll immediately be greeted by workers at an information desk, who will offer tours of the space. To the right is the kitchen, which formerly sold Parkway patrons pizza and beer. Koziol hopes to sell simple fare like hot dogs and nachos—but “not crappy nachos, the ones where you can put like 20 things on it.” He’s not sure yet if there will be table service.
Guests will enter the theater from two sets of stairs on either side of the information desk and may walk through the dispensary before they get to the lounge. “That’s the gift shop gimmicky thing that we’re not sure about yet,” says Koziol. He’s not sure what type of cannabis products he’ll sell—but he says that whatever they are, they will be sold at market price. There will not be an upcharge because they’re being sold at a theater.
From the dispensary, patrons will enter the theater, which could be used as a space for movie screenings, live music performances or simply as a place to smoke and mingle. Right now the screen is torn and tagged, but renderings by an architect—Oakland-based firm Draw Build Design—show a giant lounge filled with teal couches, booths and tables. Koziol is planning to take out the roof that separates the upstairs screening room from the main one downstairs to make the theater one giant space.
There are only a few historical elements left in the building and Koziol plans to restore those, including the Egyptian and East Indian molding around the screen and the Spanish Renaissance façade on the exterior. He also plans to salvage the projectors and display them as an art installation in the space.
Kozoil says he can’t take credit for the “pot at the Parkway” idea. Back in 2017, investor Siavash Afshar applied for a permit to open a dispensary in the offices above the Parkway. But Afshar didn’t get a permit from the city and never secured a lease with the Chengs.
Koziol got the idea from Greg Minor, the assistant to the city administrator in charge of cannabis permitting. Minor said he knew Koziol was having an issue with his lease on Telegraph. He also knew Koziol had experience renovating old buildings. The Telegraph location had formerly been a 100-year-old mortuary, which Koziol had renovated prior to opening it as a dispensary in 2014.
“At least he would be walking into something with eyes wide open, so at least he would be able to do something similar,” said Minor.
At one point, Koziol and Afshar planned to work together, but they split over a number of issues that included property rights and whether the theater and dispensary should be combined. Ultimately, Koziol says, he went ahead with the project without Afshar. In a phone interview, Afshar said he felt “stabbed in the back” when Koziol signed a lease without him.
Now Koziol’s faced with the task of renovating another historic property. He puts it this way: “We went through it once and I told myself, I said, ‘I am never ever going to do this again.’ Here we are doing it again 5 years later.”
The Parkway is nearly a century old; according to cinematreasure.org, the theater opened on September 23, 1925. “It’s a 1920s movie palace. There were a lot back then, but we’ve lost a lot of them,” said Naomi Schiff, a board member of the Oakland Heritage Alliance, a non-profit that monitors the state of historic places in the city.
According to Schiff, the Parkway—while not classified as a designated landmark like the Paramount Theater—is a historic building. According to city law, this requires Oakland city planners to take the building’s history into consideration when deciding whether to approve building permits.
Over the last two weeks, Oakland North reached out several times to Citywide Communications Director Karen Boyd requesting comment on the project, and to the Department of Planning and Building’s Oakland Cultural Heritage Survey office requesting the historical documents kept on the Parkway. As of press time, neither had responded.
Schiff said she and her organization will be waiting to see Koziol’s proposal before they voice their support for the restoration, but to her, “it’s certainly better to have it used than not used.”
In its most recent incarnation as a movie theater, The Parkway was operated as a “picture-pub-pizza” speakeasy. Kyle and Catherine Fischer opened their version of the Parkway in 1997 because, according to Kyle Fischer, they “liked to drink and go to movies.”
It turns out, so did the East Bay. The theater became an Oakland institution, and transforming the old theater also transformed the neighborhood. “When we got there, it was a community blight. There were at least six payphones directly in front of the theater that were specifically for the sale of crack cocaine,” said Fischer.
It changed quickly, according to Will Viharo—better known back then as “The Parkway guy” or “Will the Thrill.” Viharo worked at the Parkway starting in 1997, first as a ticket taker, then as the head of programming for what he calls Oakland’s “funky palace.”
Viharo remembers the theater fondly, as an “affordable date place” that attracted visitors from all across the Bay Area. “It’s a house of memories for a lot of people,” he added, speaking by phone from his new home in Seattle.
For Kyle Fischer, it was a dream come true. “We loved Oakland. We loved where we were in Oakland. We loved our clientele in Oakland,” he said.
In 2002, Yan and Judy Cheng bought the building. Fischer said the new owners immediately said they were going to raise their rent, although that did not become a reality until 2008, when the Fischers’ lease was up. The rent went from $6,000 per month to $10,000, he said.
“What they wanted would have put us in the negative,” said Fischer. “We worked really hard to a path and agreement and just couldn’t find it.”
At the time, the Fischers were also operating the Cerrito Theater, which they opened in 2006 in El Cerrito. Fischer said the Cerrito was less profitable than the Parkway, straining their finances, but he added that the Cerrito’s financial trouble was not the reason they left the Parkway. It was purely caused by the rent increase, according to Fischer.
On March 23, 2009, the Parkway closed. Viharo remembers the date exactly, because it’s also William Shatner’s birthday. Fischer remembers it because he was devastated. “Closing the Parkway—truly, it felt like losing a family member,” he said.
After the Parkway closed, Fischer said the couple was “emotionally spent” and “slightly embarrassed” they couldn’t keep the Parkway open. So they left the country to work for the State Department, first in Brazil, then the Philippines and finally in Washington D.C. The couple moved back to the Bay Area a few months ago. Kyle Fischer now works at The California Shakespeare Theater, where he’ll be producing a concert series this summer entitled Echoes at the Bruns Amphitheater.
Since the Fischers left in 2009, there have been at least a half dozen attempts to reopen the theater, including an effort that led to the opening of The New Parkway Theater—the same beer-movie-pizza concept, but in a different location.
J Moses Ceaser—the man behind the spinoff—had hoped to reopen in the original space. A longtime patron of the old Parkway, Ceaser always thought it was a “brilliant, brilliant place.” Initially he thought other “movie buffs” would find a way to reopen the theater. But by 2010, when it still hadn’t happened, the then-documentary filmmaker and photobooth business owner decided to give it a go. He earned the support of “I Like the Parkway,” a Facebook group for the movie theater’s fan base. He then raised $57,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
All Ceaser needed next was a lease with the Chengs, but he was never able to sign on the dotted line. “Do you watch football?” asked Ceaser. “It was the kind of like many times we were on the five, ten-yard line, but could never get it across the finish line.”
In 2012 he opened The New Parkway Theater in downtown Oakland. As for the new effort at the old building, Caesar has mixed feelings. “I think that neighborhood needs something at that location. I would like to see it open as something. My concern is I don’t want there to be confusion between the two places,” said Ceaser.
But Ceasar is prepared. He said he trademarked the “Parkway” name years ago, so Koziol will have to pick a new variation. “Weedway?” he asked, offering a suggestion.
Koziol said he’s planned to keep the iconic name with the building and says he plans to speak with Ceaser to figure out a compromise.
Kyle Fischer is 100 percent behind the effort to reopen the theater as long as the neighbors are on board, too. “Anybody who can bring that building back to life, I would do what do I can to help them,” said Fischer. “That would heal a wound in me.”
Steven Ma, too, remembers the day the Parkway closed. Ma owns Woody’s Laundromat and Café across the street from the theater. Ma bought the building in 1997 and opened about the same time as the Fischers opened the Parkway. “We lit up the street,” said Ma.
When the Parkway closed, he said, “It wasn’t good for the whole neighborhood.”
When asked whether he wants the theater turned into a cannabis lounge, he hestantly said no. “I would prefer just like the way it was,” said Ma, taking a sip of ice water from a coffee mug. “You are the first person I told.”
He believes many other residents feel the same way; they’re “hungry for the theater to open” but they’d prefer a movie theater minus the cannabis. “I think after all these years people are just frustrated,” said Ma. “They don’t care what comes in as long as its occupied and has something going.”
Sasha Esposito, who started the popular Facebook page “Lake Neighbors” for residents living around the theater, feels similarly. She moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago, and lives two blocks from the theater. She fears that by opening the theater as a cannabis lounge, the building will “lose its humanity” and won’t retain the original atmosphere Parkway theatergoers loved.
“There’s nobody that doesn’t want it back to the way it was. All of our hearts are broken,” said Esposito. To Esposito, the cannabis lounge is a compromise that requires residents to acquiesce—but “it’s better than nothing.”
District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas—whose district includes the Parkway—is not taking a stance yet. While she could not find time to speak with Oakland North about the project, her communications liaison Tiffany Kang referred us to a statement the councilmember released after the city issued Koziol’s dispensary permit.
In it, Fortunato Bas expressed concern that the process to approve the permit may have been rushed. Prior to the decision, she had requested the City Administrator’s Office delay their ruling. But her request was not granted. Since then, Kang said their office has heard from a number of concerned residents. Kang said the councilmember is listening to feedback and taking the comments very seriously.
Koziol said he understands why neighbors might be worried about a cannabis business moving in, but he said the problem with re-opening the Parkway just as a theater is money. For years, he said, investors have tried to make a old model work. But according to Koziol, investing millions to restore a property doesn’t make fiscal sense if the theater is solely resurrected and reopened as a two-screen movie house. Movie theaters have slim margins and sometimes fail to turn a profit. But with the addition of cannabis, he believes, the investment is doable. Cannabis is profitable, and he hopes that after several years, the money earned from the dispensary component of the facility will cover the cost of the renovations.
Koziol said he, too, is taking all the comments to heart. “We want to do something that’s really inclusive and accessible to everybody,” he said.
There are other challenges he’ll have to face. in addition to the fallout from the lease dispute over THC’s former Telegraph location, Koziol is also a co-owner of Richmond Patient’s Group, which was sued, along with two other dispensaries, in 2016 by a rival business that alleged the three had conspired to monopolize the local marijuana trade. That lawsuit is still ongoing. Koziol declined to comment on the suit.
And transforming the Parkway won’t be cheap. Koziol estimates renovations will cost anywhere from $1.5 to $2 million and take up to eight months. As part of the lease agreement, Koziol and his partners will foot the entire renovation bill, so the Chengs will not pay a penny of that cost.
“It’s not a sweetheart of a deal. We’re going all the work. They’re not putting a single dollar into the building,” said Koziol of the landlords. “It’s completely on us and there’s a lot.”
While the developer plans to invest his own money and says he may put up his house as collateral, Koziol said he’ll likely need money from outside investors to cover the multi-million dollar renovation cost. He would not say specifically who he’s speaking with, but did explain that he’s in the process of presenting the proposal to those in the Bay Area with capital to sink into the project.
Picking up a piece of trash outside on the sidewalk below the iconic Parkway marquee, the businessman chuckles. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says.
The windows are still boarded up, the paint is chipping and faded, and in every crevice is covered in a film of dust and grime. But Kozoil just smiles. “We’re looking for volunteers,” he says, referring to both the need for manpower and money.
Then he heads back inside to grab a broom, ready to make another dent in the decade of dirt that’s been accumulating in and around the Parkway Theater.
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