When the credits roll on the last day of June, Berkeley cinéastes will have to bid adieu to the Fine Arts Cinema on Shattuck Avenue — but only temporarily.
Developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests, who is considered by many growth-conscientious Berkeleyans a bit controversial, plans to replace the cinema's current building and the two next to it on the southeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Haste Street with a new Fine Arts Building.
The 85,000-square-foot complex will keep a cinema-theme on the ground floor — combining a 300-seat state-of-the-art theater with a café and space designated for the Cinema Preservation Society.
The five-story building will also have apartments and parking spaces.
It has been designed in a “reminiscent art-deco” style by San Francisco architect Dan Solomon and should open in early 2004, according to Project Manager Chris Hudson.
During construction, the Fine Arts Cinema intends to take its show on the road. Details have not been finalized yet, said Keith Arnold, one of the cinema's operators. But they are planning an al fresco patio series at La Note restaurant and events at the Castro Theatre, the Red Vic and the Parkway Speakeasy Theater.
Arnold said he wanted to reassure loyal Fine Arts Cinema customers that they can still get their fix, though they may have to travel slightly farther to get it.
“It will still be classic Fine Arts Cinema: silent films, live music, highly-thematic double-bills,” Arnold said.
Unlike many of Kennedy’s projects, this appears to be coming to fruition without detractors or opposition. The planning and design process has been going smoothly since Panoramic Interests bought the property in 2000. In the past few months, both the Design Review Committee and the Landmarks Preservation Commission — which had to OK the demolition of some of the buildings which were over 40-years-old — gave the go-ahead. “I think most people have high hopes it is going to be a good project. i don’t know anyone who opposes it,” said Becky O’Malley of the Landmark Preservation Commission. “To tell you the truth I don’t know anyone who is against it.”
O’Malley pointed to two other Kennedy projects that have won the unanimous favor of neighbors and city hall.
City Councilmember Polly Armstrong, who has not even seen the plans, said she too was very pleased that something would be done with the buildings.
“I haven’t seen the plans. I don’t know the size, but I’m delighted he’s going to save the theater,” said City Councilmember Polly Armstrong. “Patrick has a good ear for knowing what people in Berkeley want to preserve.”
The project will come before the Zoning Adjustments Board in April.
Councilmember Dona Spring, who represents the downtown business district, said she thought the new building would be a fine addition to the area.
“It's a prime location for a mixed-used project,” said Spring. “There are places in Berkeley where it's appropriate to increase residential development.”
In fact, this is one case where increasing density has not created strong neighborhood opposition.
“The building is going to stretch pedestrian activity down another block, so it will help the city achieve its dream of a pedestrian-oriented downtown,” Hudson said.
The new plans will allow the cinema to improve its technology, create better sight lines and add more seating and a balcony, Arnold said.
The new building will also finally give the CPS, which is currently headquartered in one of the board member's homes, space to show films that even independent movie theaters have to pass up for fiscal reasons. Arnold is optimistic about the project.
“It'll be an improved environment. We expect a level of density that this part of town has never had. Increased foot traffic will have a positive effect on any storefront business,” he said.
David Wheelan, who has been going to the Fine Arts Cinema since it first opened, was relieved that the cinema was not disappearing completely.
“I think it is one of the best art cinema programs in the Bay area and was mourning its pre-mature death, presumably but now incorrectly at the hands of a developer,” he said.
“Its terrific that a developer can appreciate the needs of the community and respond so well.”
Panoramic Interests has not yet sealed the contract with the Fine Arts Cinema, however. But Arnold is confident about the cinema's fate. Although they will have to pay higher rent in the new building, said Arnold, “It looks do-able. I have faith in this project and that he [Kennedy] will deal with us honestly for the long-term future. But would I like more commitment? Yeah.”
Hudson said that Panoramic Interests intends to negotiate a long-term contract with the Fine Arts Cinema.
“There's no final agreement yet, but we are going to be paying for the improvements and signing a long-term lease.
We intend to have them there as long as they have the energy to operate it. It's not a money-making venture.”
However, Youth Radio located in the storefront next to the Fine Arts Cinema as a supplement to their main space in the Kennedy-owned University Lofts, will not be coming back there in 2004.
“Youth Radio is a temporary tenant. We negotiated this sweetheart deal with them where they could use the building [next to the Fine Arts Cinema] as overflow space,” said Hudson. “We are looking for other space that may be suitable for them.”
Friends of the Fine Arts Cinema who want more information about on-the-road engagements should sign up for the mailing list at the theater itself or the web site www.fineartscinema.com.