City moves to preserve Senator Theatre
First building in Baltimore to be placed on special protection list
By Adam Bednar
The Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation has placed the interior of the Senator Theatre on a special protection list, over the objections of its owner.
The 70-year-old art deco theater is the first building in the city that the CHAP board has named to the Public Interior Special List.
The special list is a stopgap measure to prevent any changes to the building’s interior while the Planning Commission and City Council consider its nomination to Baltimore City’s Public Interior Landmark List.
The special interior protection list prevents the building’s owner from changing the theater’s interior without the commission’s consent.
The theater was added to the list a day before the Board of Estimates was set to approve the city purchasing the financially troubled theater’s mortgage from 1st Mariner Bank for $950,000.
The city intends to foreclose on the property, and then send out a Request For Proposal, or RFP, seeking either an owner or tenant for the theater.
A date for the city’s foreclosure or when it would begin accepting proposals has not been set.
Tom Kiefaber, the theater’s owner, objected to it being placed on the special list. He called CHAP’s actions “unprecedented and flawed.”
Placing the theater on the list “significantly undermines an open, transparent and fair process” in regards to the city’s plans for an RFP, Kiefaber said after the hearing.
The exterior landmark designation “on a number of occasions scuttled ongoing negotiations” because of the language in the enabling legislation indicates CHAP can also limit what is done to the building’s interior, Kiefaber said.
He said placing the theater on the list limits interested investors that want to keep the Senator operating as an entertainment venue.
“The unintended consequences are real and significant and need to be taken into account,” Kiefaber said.
Because of the restrictions on the Senator, investors backed out of several chances he has had to save the theater, he said.
Kiefaber also said the commission violated its own guidelines by not properly informing surrounding communities such as Homeland or organizations such as the Belvedere Improvement Association about the hearing.
“It’s not just notification. There is wording in the guidelines that (communities) should be consulted,” Kiefaber said. “It’s one thing to say it’s going to happen. It’s another to get their opinion.”
But City Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the York Road corridor, said he thought the theater being added to the special protection list was a good thing.
“I can see that this process might make an out-of-town investor more hesitant to do this project, but that in and of itself is not a reason not to do it,” Henry said.
The city doesn’t want to sell or lease the Senator to anyone that wouldn’t want to abide by the rules established by the landmark list, Henry said.
Since 2007, when the theater narrowly avoided foreclosure, Kiefaber has been working to transfer it over to a nonprofit. Using the nonprofit model he hoped to keep the Senator running as an entertainment venue.
However, when the economy faltered in the fall of 2008, it handicapped Kiefaber’s ability to continue to make his mortgage payments and 1st Mariner Bank began the foreclosure process.
In February the city offered Kiefaber a loan of $320,000 to pay off his back mortgage if he signed the theater over to a nonprofit group and a working group could recommend to Mayor Sheila Dixon that a nonprofit could run the theater without further city subsidy.
In April the working group, which was made up if politicians, bankers, leaders of nonprofits and real estate agents, concluded that the theater could not sustain itself as a nonprofit.
user comments (1)
user tharris says...
Apparently MD Senator Joan Carter Conway is concerned enough with the future of the theatre that she has called some state & city officials to a public meeting at The Senator Theatre this Wednesday (5/20) at 6pm. Topics include Baltimore City's forthcoming public auction of the theatre! Senator.com has more details.
Posted 8:45 AM, 05.19.09