Station North’s Parkway Theatre continues on its uncertain path as three bidders on the property hope to be chosen for its renovation. Meanwhile, the theater’s biggest advocate’s knowledge remains untapped.
“I basically have no credentials whatsoever in either historic preservation or restoration, but that doesn’t mean I can’t come up with some good ideas.”
That’s the first thing out of John Grant’s mouth, which prefaces his explanation as to why the long-time advocate of the Parkway Theatre in Station North is so invested in the future of a stagnant, crumbling theater well past its heyday. The Parkway, built in 1915 as a vaudeville venue and movie house, did have its golden years. With gorgeous architectural details modeled after London’s West End Theatre and seating for up to 1,100 people, the space was a hotspot for early- and mid-20th century film lovers. But it changed hands often, leaving it dormant for years at a time, until it finally lost the public’s interest. But not John Grant’s.
Grant owns and operates www.parkwaytheatre.com, where you’ll see the work and curation of a man who is still actively involved in promoting the Parkway as a would-be valuable asset to Baltimore and Station North Arts and Entertainment District Inc (SNAED) in particular. Though not visually spectacular (Grant will be the first to tell you that), the site is full of information about the history of the venue, a proposed future for the venue, and the story of how the 67-year-old’s passion for old organs (like the one that used to inhabit the Parkway) morphed into a greater love of community revitalization through historic preservation.
Despite Grant’s efforts to catch the attention of anyone who might be able to contribute to the theater’s progress, his pleas for help getting his message out have been politely deferred at best, simply ignored at worst. Odd, considering his wealth of knowledge about the Parkway’s history, not to mention his plain old dedication to seeing it thrive. Admittedly, “odd” wouldn’t be Grant’s word of choice to describe this phenomenon. But his apparent progression from frustration, to bitterness, to all but defeat in not getting a simple backlink to his long-cared-for website from his neighbors is rather telling. This doesn’t just wound Grant’s ego– it’s also a missed opportunity for the Parkway to be discovered by potentially deep-pocketed investors, according to Grant.
“My biggest point of contention all along is that ever since [the Station North Arts & Entertainment District] was formed, the district itself and the city for that matter have not made a wider advertising, if you will, of the Parkway– trying to get investors or developers with deeper pockets and philanthropic money to go in there and really do a first-class, bang-up restoration of the place,” Grant says. He adds: “The Parkway is the Rodney Dangerfield of theatres in that it doesn’t get any respect. It’s just totally mystifying to me.”
But now, there are signs of hope for the Parkway. Although not widely advertised as Grant would hope, a request for proposals from the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) called for outlines to restore and revitalize the once-grand theater, and three groups responded. Grant, a retired National Security Agency engineer, isn’t behind any of the proposals submitted to the BDC. He was, however, listening very intently as each proposal was presented at a recent public meeting held by the Charles North Community Association.
As was revealed in the meeting, Samuel Polakoff and Toby Blumenthal of Property Consulting, Inc. want to renovate the building to turn it into a mixed-use venue, primarily for live entertainment. Jed Dietz and company from the Maryland Film Festival and Cross Street Partners plan to use the space to house a year-round film and live-music center, as well as provide a space for nearby universities’ seminars. Kevin Brown, David Sawyer, and Gregg Mason of Station North Arts Company intend to incorporate several retail spaces, as well as office suites, residential units, and, of course, an entertainment venue.
Each project seems ambitious, yet feasible. And the specifications of the RFP make it so that the historic integrity of the building must be maintained, which will alleviate any purists’ fears of seeing the building get knocked to the ground as was once threatened long ago.
The Maryland Film Festival’s plans seemed beneficial not only to their organization and nearby students, but a nod to the theater’s original purpose, as well. And with a name as recognized as theirs, the Parkway would likely benefit from great marketing efforts. Station North Arts Company’s plans seemed a bit more scattered (a spa, newsstand, wine bar, and reflecting pool all in one space), but well-intentioned and, most importantly, keeps generating revenue from multiple sources for the building its priority. Property Consulting, Inc. has Blumenthal’s credits with the Hippdrome and Meyerhoff behind it, and there’s a good chance of them working closely with Towson University Radio Station WTMD, which is currently expanding.
Of course, the couple dozen or so attendees at the meeting had questions about all this. For one: “That stuff costs money, don’t it?” And it does. Budgets were discussed in general terms, and numbers ranging from $12 to $17 million were projected, though many are uncetain as to just how bad it currently is inside the Parkway.
The biggest issue, however, was and is parking, as proven by the relentless questions about it from meeting attendees. Each bidder was willing to admit that parking is an issue in the area, but lack of space availability makes it difficult to solve. One bidder expressed a tinge of frustration over the fact that the RFP didn’t ask bidders to specifically address parking, mentioning that they’re uncertain as to what to do about it themselves when it is such a big undertaking (but then, so is restoring the Parkway itself). Though the RFP might not have provided guidelines to addressing it, Phil Croskey, the BDC’s Director of Economic Development – West said in an email, “As with any project, parking will need to be addressed by the developer to ensure success of their project.” Who the responsibility falls on, then, seemed a little murky. Station North residents seemed dissatisfied with responses regarding parking (Grant’s eyebrows were certainly raised), but ultimately, it seems not to be the bidders’ primary concerns.
According to Croskey, the timeline of how and when a decision will be made includes a review of each proposal at BDC’s project review committee and BDC’s Board of Directors, who will then make a a recommendation to the mayor.
“Assuming all things go as planned, a recommendation to the mayor will take place this summer,” Croskey says. “When work will begin on the Parkway is unknown and contingent upon the developer selected and most importantly financing of the project.” CNCA members projected July for a decision, granted one of the three proposals is even chosen.
The Parkway’s future still seems uncertain, and whether Grant will have any involvement in this labor of love is also unclear. He’s spent many years imagining a bright future for the Parkway– certainly no lack of heart, but a lack of means, has kept him from doing so. He’s not convinced any of the three proposals are what’s right for the theater, but doesn’t believe his own agenda is the only fitting solution, either. Still, he’s the man who owns the website that bears the Parkway’s name.
He asks, “I wonder what the Parkway would be if it could only talk.” But for now, the grand theater remains shuttered.