Efforts to preserve the building as an entertainment venue fell short over the years. Developers say the current plan should have a minimal impact to its historic facade.
By Matt Skoufalos
The Westmont Theatre could have been a lot of things, said developer Peter Lazaropoulos.
What the building was not going to become, despite the wishes of some preservationists, was a theater.
A drug store, a liquor store; even a Trader Joe’s supermarket was considered for the historic, yet dilapidated, building.
But each of those options, and others like them, wouldn’t have passed muster with preservation councils.
“We explored a number of possible tenants, but it’s difficult because of the shape of the building and the space,” Lazaropoulos said.
“A lot of them would need windows and major openings to the exterior to the building, which would cause major alterations to its historic look.”
Instead, Lazaropoulos’ Cherry Hill development group, Lazgor, LLC, has arranged a 10-year lease agreement with Planet Fitness of Newington, NH to put a gym in the space.
Last Thursday, the Lazgor plan was approved by the New Jersey Historic Sites Council, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, and now awaits clearance by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to proceed.
Lazaropoulos said that he expects his firm can drive efficiencies of scale where other developers couldn’t because it retains architects, engineers, and builders in-house that will keep the cost of the project “reasonable.
“And on the income side we have a stable tenant that is leasing this building for ten years,” he said.
From its beginnings in 1927, the Westmont operated under a number of different owners until Haddon Township moved to acquire the then-vacant building in a $250,000 lease-buyback agreement with Camden County in 1998.
From there, Trocadero Theater owner Joanna Pang’s Westmont Development Group (WDG) was awarded the rights to redevelop the parcel with the stated intention of operating it as a bar/restaurant and performance venue.
However, the township claimed those plans were never formalized, and, in 2009 severed its agreement with WDG.
In 2011, the town won a $50,000 state historic preservation grant, with which it commissioned a review of conditions at the theater.
The resulting preservation plan prepared in April 2012 by DF Gibson Architects of New York, NY (hosted in two parts, here and here) estimated it would cost $3.2 million to renovate and operate the Westmont.
“The biggest challenge the Township will need to resolve for a successful future renovation and operation of the theatre is a progressive theatre operator, and a favorable financing and business plan,” the report noted.
Those things never materialized, and conditions at the site, which hasn’t been occupied in some 20 years, are in a state of accelerating decline.
“It’s pretty bad and it’s worse since the last time the report was done,” Lazaropoulos said. “There’s feces and dead pigeons all over the place; a tremendous amount of mold. The building has asbestos, lead paint, a huge underground oil tank.
“If this building was left in the condition it is now, another five or so years, most likely the roof would collapse,” he said.
‘Market forces’ or parking?
To Lazaropoulos, “market forces declare[d]that there’s no other demand for a theater.”
More practically, however, the land that WDG claimed it had considered for parking as part of its project ultimately went to the Albertson Village development.
But Lazaropoulos contends that issue became irrelevant years ago, when previous theater owners sold its parking lot to the developers of the strip mall in which Yogo Factory currently operates.
“When they sold the parking lot, they sold the functionality of this theater,” he said.
Neither does Lazoropoulos expect that parking will be an issue for the use of the space as a fitness center, which “has a rolling traffic pattern; people go in and out.”
Comparatively, theater traffic arrives “in the evening, and all at once,” he said.
The project will be Lazgor’s first work on a historic building, the limitations of which touch every aspect of its design, from compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to the use of age-appropriate colors in the facade.
Once approvals are finalized, the group expects to begin the environmental cleanup at the site followed by “a selective demolition” during the winter. Construction should accelerate in March 2015 for an early summer opening.
‘It’s better if it becomes a viable business’
Doug Kelly, whose Blue salon is a few storefronts up from the theater, said that whatever tenant the restoration brings, businesses in town will benefit as a result.
“I bought my building 19 years ago, and we’ve been waiting for that [theater]to be something,” Kelly said. “It’s better if it gets back on the tax roll and it becomes a viable business.
“If it’s a gym, a restaurant, a law office, a church, what’s the difference what it is, as long as it’s a business that’s up and running,” he said.
“For me, a guy who lives next door, it’s a vacant run-down property.”
Kelly, the driving force behind the Westmont Farmers Market, which uses the theater parking lot for its visitors when in season, said that the neighborhood already suffers the effects of its blighted, current state.
“Every Wednesday morning before the market, I sweep that parking lot,” Kelly said. “I get crack bags, condoms, beer bottles, the insides of cigars. Kids party in that lot every weekend, and it’s a dark, abandoned building.”
Although Kelly said that “ideally it should be a theater,” he thinks that the property, once cleaned up, can only ultimately be a good thing for the township.
“If the gym doesn’t work out, then we have a refurbished downtown retail space,” he said. “If it’s an interim use, you never know what could wind up there.”
Kelly pointed out that a similar renovation changed the Ardmore Theater of Ardmore, PA, into a Philadelphia Sports Club in 2002.
(The gym pulled up its stakes this July, after 12 years of operations, according to Main Line Media News.)
‘You’ve got to be involved’
Kelly also said that without a viable plan, the theater could have been lost decades ago.
“Back before the county lent us the money to save it, Taco Bell was looking at the property to do a drive-through,” he said.
“The fact that it will be a gym is better than a Taco Bell.”
Kelly, who grew up on Emerald Avenue and is old enough to remember when the Westmont was the only cinema in the area showing The Exorcist, did cast doubt on the notion that parking should have been an issue at the site.
“They complain about parking and traffic, but I don’t see it,” Kelly said. “I live up here.
“That theater used to sell out all the time, and the parking lot that was WOW Video was its parking lot,” he said.
“That’s not even that big of a space. No one’s ever asked for a variance.”
Nonetheless, Kelly pledged to be “a proactive supporter” of the gym, and encouraged residents to attend government meetings to express their thoughts as the fitness corporation moves in.
“You’ve got to be involved with these projects if you want them to pick up the character of the town and the flavor of the place,” he said.
“You can effect change. I think the best way to do it is to be proactive and not reactive.”
‘End of an era’
Still, for those who had worked to preserve the space in its original form, the news came as a blow.
Friends of the Westmont Theatre, a nonprofit community group that had in recent years tried to rally to operate the building as a working theater, weighed in on the Lazgor plans on Facebook.
“Today is a sad day for some,” the post read. “For others, it’s a day of new opportunities. Either way, this signifies the end of an era.
“The last vaudeville motion picture palace in Camden County, New Jersey will at one point be no more.”