The Empress Theatre – A landmark in limbo

The Empress Theatre, from across Sherbrooke Street West in Girouard Park, NDG - Fall 2008

The Empress Theatre is back in the hands of the Borough of Cote-des-Neiges/ Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and the City is calling on the public for suggestions on what to do with the 84 year-old theatre.

CTV Montreal reports that after a 12-year effort to develop the former theatre into a community cultural centre, the borough has decided to reclaim the building and the reigns as to the project’s direction. This Fall they’ll be hearing new and revised proposals for the site, which has been abandoned since an electrical fire gutted much of the interior back in 1992.

I’ve had the chance to correspond with several people involved with the revitalization project over the years, and have even had the chance to go inside and see the potential of this building. It’s unreal. It has that warm fuzzy feeling large empty buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature give off.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen the damage, and there is a dearth of investment capital for theatre renovation these days, as one might imagine. Back last August renovation work was estimated at $11 million and the City was inclined to support some of the work, but the project otherwise had to finance itself.

This in turn leads me to one of the major sticking points of the project: how will it generate revenue? It would seem as though this is not just a sticking point for myself, but for the project as a whole. No one knows how to come up with the capital if not for government grants and private donations. What I found curious was that there didn’t seem to be a plan for use of the space as a performance venue. While it was hoped that the site would become a permanent home to a theatre company, there were no other plans to generate revenue through performance, which is exactly what this kind of a theatre was designed to do.

The Empress was built in 1927 as an Egyptian-styled ‘atmospheric theatre’ with a comparatively high seating capacity, featuring a balcony and boxes. The ornate interiors were designed by world-renowned theatre designer Emmanuel Briffa, who had also designed the interiors of a host of other Montreal theatres – almost none of which survive today. There isn’t much to salvage, and indeed any revitalization of this space, if it were to be done to resurrect the aesthetic of Briffa so as to do tribute to him, would necessitate additional costs to incorporate what remains of the original design into a cohesive reproduction of the original, something which may be possible thanks to the rather large qualities of media collected for just such a reconstruction. But more to the spirit of the theatre, the Empress was designed to be used with vaudeville in mind, and was thus inherently designed to be multi-functional, providing a wide spectrum of performance entertainment possibilities. It was well known in this respect.

Click here for an ultra high-resolution picture of the former Cinema V from back in 1982.

Today, the Empress is a hollow shell of its former self. It has been abandoned since the fire in 1992 and is slowly being eroded by time and the elements. If nothing is done, it will go the way of the Seville and York Theatres. The City has been described as having seized the Empress from the non-profit Empress Cultural Centre which up until recently was in-charge of finding a developer interested in revitalizing the dilapidated theatre.

Seize sounds overly dramatic, given that no one has the capital to redevelop the theatre, ownership of a semi-abandoned too-dangerous-for-admittance building seems tenuous for all parties concerned. It’s a miracle the building is at least structurally sound – for the moment.

The interior is dark, stark, and filled with all the goodies an urban explorer goes looking for. As you can imagine, the people in charge of the revitalization effort aren’t too pleased with the explorers, who inadvertently drive up insurance costs.

And so it is, back to the public for calls and considerations. What to do with an old theatre that could be saved and put to good use for the community by providing a much-needed performing arts venue, if only someone was prepared to put between 10 and 15 million dollars into an obstinately altruistic endeavour? What to do indeed!

It’s profoundly naive to think someone’s going to come up with this kind of capital if the project has no hope of generating revenue. This is a double-penalty to the initial investor, as there would remain the issue of financing the yearly operating costs of whatever cultural activities going on inside. None of this would be cheap.

Therefore, it seems profoundly irresponsible to me to go forward on this project without knowing exactly how, we as members of the community, intend to generate the capital necessary for completion. If the community can’t figure out how to pay for this project, then the city will turn around, condemn the building and raze it, partially or thoroughly, and allow a developer to do with the site as he or she sees fit. And if this happens, everybody loses, city and citizens together. The citizens will lose a vital cultural space located in the centre of the community, while the city loses the potential indirect economic benefits of having just such an institution in our backyard.

NDG lacks a proper performing arts venue, and Sherbrooke Street West lacks a cultural institution to anchor the street and serve as an intellectual and cultural focal point of the community. The Empress could be all these things, in addition to an economic generator if there was an organization in place whose goal it was to generate a ‘self-sustaining’ level of revenue through regularly scheduled performances and other entertainment activities. I can imagine a seat of community activity, all day, every day, right across from the jewel that is Girouard Park. Moving forward it is imperative that revenue-creation be taken into consideration as an element of the renovation/revitalization of the site.

But what about the community? We need something more than just a performance venue, we need a community cultural centre, which is another vital community component lacking from NDG. An architect was brought in to make a recommendation as to what to do with the space back in 2005. Among other things, he indicated there was enough space inside to have one or two stages, a gallery space, between two and three storefronts, offices, rehearsal and construction facilities in addition to a dance studio and rooftop terrace. It was ambitious to say the least, but it’s still feasible. And the bigger the redevelopment, the greater the possibilities for potential revenue creation. To handicap the project prematurely by not seeking a thorough renovation and maximization of the space inside would be regrettable, as this may only prolong the demise rather than stimulate new growth.

***

One final point: one of the greatest concerns of the people I spoke with, various local residents and members of the ECC, was that the city would repossess the building and sell it to an unscrupulous real estate developer who in turn would gut the interior and resort to banal façadism, providing a limited number of excessively expensive ‘theatre-themed’ condo units within. I thought the nightmare to be a bit over the top, but I suppose that danger isn’t completely irrational. Still, the Borough hasn’t yet made a call, and they in all sincerity think another public pitch for tenders may present new investors and opportunities.

Now consider this: there’s a parking lot adjacent to the Empress, roughly half the area of the theatre. The other half of the adjacent lot features a nondescript two floor building with restaurants and small shops.

A condominium project on this theatre-adjacent site, possibly a condo tower with a multi-floor underground parking lot and a commercial rental-property base, may provide the initial investment capital for the Empress’ rehabilitation. I can’t imagine a more solid investment than one in Montreal’s as-yet un-satiated condo market, especially if this particular condo project would a) be in a neighbourhood where condos are still a rarity, b) have a commanding view of Girouard Park, the Oratory, the Mountain, the City (and just about everything else!) and c) be adjacent to a newly revitalized performing arts venue and community cultural centre. The Seville sold out in a half hour, do you think we could beat that record? I can imagine the owner of the adjacent building and parking lot could be motivated to sell or invest, especially if the resulting commercial base offered his tenants more modern and efficient facilities. At least three revenue streams could be generated from such a development, and this in turn could provide the capital necessary to execute the renovations of the Empress and provide start-up funds for the performing arts venue and community cultural centre. These costs could be incorporated into the cost and value of the condominium units. I can imagine once the theatre is financially self-sustaining, they may be able to pay off this investment back to the condo developers.

In any event I digress, that’s just one unorthodox proposal. It should be an interesting few months and I’ll definitely be following this story.

3 thoughts on “The Empress Theatre – A landmark in limbo”

  1. I was so interested to read this article almost a year after the Borough forced their hand. We did not actually give over the building until November as it happened.

    Your article is very prescient, so many of the things that you proposed are what we had been working on since we became the new board of the ECC in the fall of 2010. Our proposal is now in at the City and we will see if the Borough council will see the merit in our proposal for a multi-use, multi-business facility at the Empress. You and your readers can see the public version (no financials) of the proposal here: http://empresscentre.com/webE/?p=966&lang=fr

    The building is in better shape than the reports would lead one to believe, still the renovation costs will be high. Our proposal does not require government assistance and involves for-profit investment from the private sector. Our expanded board has many luminaries from Montreal’s business community as well as some visionary cultural entrepreneurs.

    Please give us your comments and help us to raise awareness about a proposal that I believe is not only creative but also sensitive to the heritage of the building, the needs of the community of NDG and greater Montreal and financially sustainable.

    Many Thanks
    Paul Scriver president Empress Cultural Centre

  2. Hi. I’d rather have put this in email but you don’t have any obvious mailto link.

    It’s not “world-renown” it’s “world-renowned”. Just FYI.

    But I notice you list my blog as Montréal City Weblog. Tha’s incorrect. The blog is in English and it’s the Montreal City Weblog. No accent. I’m very definite about that. Thanks.

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