Construction could begin by July with new tenant, Planet Fitness, coming in February. Supporters say saving the historic building is a win for the town and its businesses.
By Matt Skoufalos
They’re not quite ready to start swinging hammers yet, but renovation of the historic Westmont Theater took an important step forward last week when the site plan for the redevelopment project was approved by the Haddon Township Zoning and Planning Board.
The approval establishes a blueprint for the revitalization of the historic property, which could be underway as early as July pending the approval of a few more outside agencies, said developer Peter Lazaropoulos of the Cherry Hill-based Lazgor, LLC.
Those include the Camden County Planning Board, the Camden County Soil Conservation District, and the New Jersey State Historical Commission, which will review formal drawings for the exterior renovations and its historic marquee.
“Our intent is to apply to the other agencies, and in the next two months have all the approvals back,” Lazaropoulos said. “We cannot start any physical work until the permits are in.”
The property will require extensive remediation to correct a laundry list of environmental issues—mold, asbestos, a dilapidated roof with roosting pigeons, an underground oil tank—and with approvals in hand, Lazgor can fine-tune the details of the project.
With an estimated seven-month timeline, a July start date would push opening day for new tenant, Planet Fitness, sometime into early 2016. But even with a later-than-anticipated start, all the exterior work of the project should be completed before the onset of winter, Lazaropoulos said.
“The client is excited for the project,” he said; “naturally, we wish the timeline was a little accelerated as well.”
‘An impressive structure’
Aside from correcting the effects of deterioration at the Westmont, the biggest change to the property will come in leveling its sloped first floor with concrete.
Bringing the theater to a consistent elevation will create a 13,000-square-foot main floor, Lazaropoulos said, atop which will sit a 9,400-square-foot mezzanine.
“Trying to preserve the interior would have caused us problems if we did not level the floor,” Lazaropoulos said. “We needed the freedom to restore it to a functional space.”
That second level will be set back about 40 feet from the entrance and situated atop a large atrium illuminated with natural light from above by second- and third-story windows. With its high ceilings and retro neon marquee, Lazaropoulos believes the new space will turn some heads.
“The inside of the building is over 30 feet tall in some areas,” Lazaropoulos said. “When you walk in, it will be an impressive structure.
Improvements to the parking lot of the property include the addition of a six-foot perimeter fence with a landscaped buffer of arbor vitae and China Girl holly bushes. Lighting along the residential border is glare-shielded to minimize its impact on adjoining residences. A rear entrance to the parking lot via Cambridge Avenue will be sealed off, preserving the integrity of the residential area.
Lazaropoulos believes the neighborhood impact of construction will be minimal, focused largely on the Haddon-Avenue-facing side of the property. Sealing off the Cambridge Avenue exit, which is currently used by the township Department of Public Works, will be an improvement, he argued.
“We will focus on keeping all our construction activity in the front, closer to the commercial part of the property instead of the residential,” Lazaropoulos said. “We think once we take over the project there will be less noise to the neighborhood.”
Turned down by Trader Joe’s
When asked why his agency took on a project the cost and scope of which many others had balked, Lazaropoulos said the project is “a good challenge.
“It is a beautiful building,” he said. “It is hard to duplicate something like this today. We do like the historic character and we wanted to save that to see what we can do.”
After local efforts to restore the building as a functioning theater fell short, preserving it as a historic structure helped save the Westmont from demolition, albeit subjecting its renovation to specific constraints. Unfortunately, the estimated $3.2 million cost of restoring the property priced out a number of potential tenants—including the popular grocery store Trader Joe’s, Lazaropoulos said.
“Plenty [of old theaters]have been converted to Trader Joe’s stores, which was our original plan,” he said. “We worked hard with the company and they turned us down. CVS drug stores have been converted, and we tried that too.”
“We went after the same type of users but we were unable to get any of them to be interested in the location” for more than a year, Lazaropoulos said.
“I don’t know if it’s, in their opinion, the demographics, the density, the disposable income [of Haddon Township],” he said; “I don’t know what criteria they used.”
Signing a 10-year lease with a national corporation like Planet Fitness gave Lazgor the financial guarantee needed to secure financing for the project, he said.
“You need, as a developer, the guarantee of a big corporation with a national name to know after you spend money on the project that the tenant will have the financial strength and stamina to stay around for 10 to 20 years,” Lazaropoulos said.
‘A substantial investment in town’
Haddon Township Planning Board member Nicholas Mink said that the project will ultimately benefit the community, and that he was pleased “to see people making a substantial investment in town.
“I think [Planet Fitness] has a very good shot of making it, and it’s the plan that brought somebody in to develop the property,” he said. “That’s a good thing overall.”
Although the project will of course inconvenience neighbors, “construction’s part of the deal,” Mink said. He was particularly supportive of the site plan closing off Cambridge Avenue, which he said creates “a substantial buffer to the majority of the surrounding neighbors.”
Mink’s critique of the project focused largely on its treatment of the marquee: he believes it should be restored without the Planet Fitness signage, which he said “compromises the integrity” of the property.
“I thought the Westmont placard should be left alone to be restored back to its original state,” Mink said.
Although creating a fitness center might not be the ideal use of the historic theater, Mink said that the restoration requires a substantial financial investment that rules out a lot of other prospective tenants.
“I don’t think there’s a bank out there that would finance speculative development for any type of business unless they’re financially sound,” he said. “Obviously the national retailers, that’s what banks are going to want. They want strength.
“It could it be something different, sure,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s economically feasible unless somebody’s investing their own cash. A ten-year lease with a ten-year renewal option, that’s a pretty safe bet.”
‘People told us that we couldn’t save it’
“The top feeling I have is that we saved the building,” said Blue salon owner Doug Kelly, whose home and business border the Westmont parking lot.
“People told us that we couldn’t save it, and that nothing would ever go in it, and that no one would ever buy it,” he said.
Kelly, who manages the Westmont Farmers Market, was a member of the Friends of the Westmont Theater group that worked to preserve the property. If that group were still active today, he said, it would be rejoicing.
“I think we’d have a party because someone is going to rent the building,” Kelly said.
He also credited Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague with pushing to secure the historic designation that preserved the property.
“I’m really excited that a national franchise is choosing to make roots in a tiny downtown, not on Route 70,” Kelly said. “The whole community is getting healthy and younger.”
The Westmont Theatre has handled overflow parking for farmers market patrons and served as a staging ground for some of its vendors in prior years. Although the Planet Fitness site plans closes off its lot for those purposes, Kelly expects the market will find a natural synergy with its new neighbor.
“We’re all going to wind up working together is my hope,” he said. “We could do CSA drop-offs there or [make them]a sponsor of the farmers market; come up with some kind of mutual relationship.”
Moreover, as a Haddon Avenue business owner, Kelly said his storefront will feel a far more significant benefit from the influx of additional traffic he expects Planet Fitness will drive than from any loss of parking spaces.
“The farmers market is 26 days for a couple hours,” he said. “It’s more of an impact to the businesses that are here 365 days a year.”