University considers new plans for theater

By Zach Seward

Though a poster of the 1994 classic The Flintstones hangs on its façade, the movie wasn’t the last film to grace the screen of the Meridian Theater. However, after three-dozen live and movie theater operators turned down the University’s offers to reuse the space, it is unlikely that the theater will show another.

Almost two years after the University purchased the building as a part of a $2.25 million deal to acquire the theater and the adjoining storefronts on the western corner of 53rd Street and Harper Avenue, no concrete plans for the defunct theater building have been made, says Director of Real Estate Operations Jo Reizner.

It is clear, however, that the possibility the building will re-open as a theater is “unlikely but not impossible,” according to Hank Webber, vice president of community affairs. University planners had been pursuing the option of bringing a fine arts theater to the building, but they say a feasible economic deal could not be reached. According to Webber, the building is in such disrepair that it would be very expensive to renovate, requiring large outlays on the part of the University to attract theater operators.

“Our primary business is as a university,” Webber said, explaining the shortcomings of the proposed deal. “We have some ability to provide incentives for businesses only if it adds great value to the community. But we’re not in the position to add subsidies for businesses that don’t contribute to our primary objective as a university.”

Especially now that the Checkerboard Lounge is coming to fruition, University planners are leaning toward a retail option for the old Meridian Theater building as opposed to having another entertainment complex in the immediate vicinity of Harper Court. According to Webber, seeking balance between businesses in the area is an important consideration.

Two non-entertainment options for the space are being considered seriously by the University. One plan calls for the renovation of the theater building for retail use, while the other involves the demolition of the old structure and the construction of a new split-use building. The new building would feature a combination of residential and retail space along with an underground parking garage.

Webber said that the University is working to make a final decision on the project within the next 60 days.

Though no retailers have expressed an interest in committing to the project, Webber said that, once the space is furnished, it would be occupied. “We have confidence that we could rent it to tenants that the community feels positive about,” he said.

Reizner also expressed optimism concerning the potential retail future of the Meridian space, saying that the building was “located on a terrific retail corner.”

According to Webber, most people agree that they want something vibrant for the space but on a scale that will not overwhelm the street. As to whether or not there was a demand for a new or renovated space, Webber felt that there was no strong pull from the community in either direction.

Lauren Alspaugh, executive director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, who attended Webber’s last presentation to the chamber this past November, seemed to agree.

“There was no real consensus at the last meeting,” Alspaugh said. “The real feel will come out when they make a decision and present it to the community.”