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January 11, 2011 > Letter to the editor: Centerville Theater

Letter to the editor: Centerville Theater

Recently, Centerville has seen the opening of the Afghan Cultural Arts Center in the historic Center Theater building on Fremont Boulevard. In the context of redevelopment, private property investment and the Unified Site, what impact does this have on Centerville?

This question has been the topic of many local conversations lately. As a lifelong resident and having worked in Centerville consistently since 1974, I offer my perspective on a path for Centerville's future. The operator of the Afghan Cultural Arts Center has improved the property with a fresh coat of paint and general cleanup of the facade, entrance and interior.

I've stopped by and introduced myself to one of the operators. I've studied the event posters in the "coming attraction" windows and checked out the website. I've noticed that the publicized events were for other venues, possibly because the theater operators are working with the planning department on modifying the conditional use permit (CUP) to allow concerts at Centerville's theater.

It is noteworthy that the recent Grand Opening event at the "Afghan Center" was a concert. Prior to this event, Fremont code enforcement along with the Planning Department warned the operator that concerts were not a permitted use. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that the theater operator did have a concert... and was fined $100 for the violation. My concern - along with surrounding property and business owners - over such business practices is that despite being warned in advance, the operator proceeded anyway. Disrespect for civic rules of operation sets the tone for long term business practices.

The Diamond Palace (located behind the theater) was granted approval for up to 12 concerts a year. With seating in excess of 900 people, parking is of great concern. As the theater operator looks to expand programming to include concerts, they must also secure parking agreements to facilitate "upgraded" use. Since the Diamond Palace has secured parking agreements with the beauty school located across Peralta from their venue, I am uncertain where additional parking can be found to support another concert venue.

The Afghan Cultural Arts Center's programming appears to be exclusively focused on the Afghan community. The size and location of this venue focused on a specific ethnic group is very disappointing and is contrary to the tenor of the General Plan and Centerville Specific Plan. It does not support investment from a wide variety of businesses in Centerville, specifically the 28,000 sq ft new retail development that Blake Hunt is proposing on the Unified Site.

All stakeholders have repeatedly voiced a desire for "higher-end" retail shops in this area.... yet the demographics of existing commercial enterprises do not currently justify interest by those investors. Vacancy rates in Centerville have created a situation where landlords accept low rents to generate a return - any return - on investment. How can any developer of the Unified Site expect $2-$3 per sq ft (NNN) in this area when $1 sq ft is available just up the street?

Property owners around the theater have no incentive to improve their property. Further, I believe that any developer of the Unified Site would be required to show signed leases to those who control their financing in order to proceed with construction.

We need an all-inclusive Center Theater for the Performing Arts as the catalyst to stimulate Fremont Boulevard between Peralta and Central Avenue. As vacancy rates fall, rents will rise. With a new retail/residential project by Blake Hunt, a better Centerville will emerge.

Will the Afghan Cultural Arts Center provide the same stimulus? From what I have seen, I am not optimistic. An ethno-centric business that caters to a small segment of the population does not create unity and an all-inclusive city. I have personally worked for the past 10 years on the Center Theater for the Performing Arts project and the adjoining Cultural Arts Resource Center. It is designed as a venue open to all segments of our population. Over the years, we have missed numerous opportunities to purchase this theater.

Our city has spent tens of thousands of dollars on Venutech plans and consultants yet we have nothing to show for it except a viable business plan with no theater. I am still hopeful that the plan for the Center Theater will be realized. This new operator needs the time to find whether or not his plan will work. Without the millions of dollars in renovation to make the theater comfortable and state of the art, as well as improvements to the area around the theater (including parking solutions and streetscape), my business sense tells me that the current operator will fail.

With renewed threats from Sacramento on redevelopment funds, our window of opportunity is shrinking. So, is it wise for us to invest an additional $13M on the unified site (in addition to the $13M already invested) when the area between Peralta and Central Avenue should be the focus of redevelopment agency investment? If we commit to the theater, adjacent private property owners will step up with additional investment and our money will go much further.

I, for one, am willing to wait on development of the Unified Site until this happens. Blake Hunt, or another developer, can submit the same - or better - project after we improve Centerville... and improved market conditions might not require an additional $13M subsidy!

The Blake Hunt project as proposed is the best we can expect from any developer under current market and physical conditions of Centerville. It requires an additional $13,000.000. We need to embrace the Centerville framework plan INCLUDING the Theater and delay the Blake Hunt project. We need to create a cosmopolitan, inclusive and more youthful Centerville before we move forward with the Unified Site.

Doing so will set the tone for a better (and less expensive) project. I'm not against the Blake Hunt project; I simply feel that we should delay it and look at our options under a different scenario that includes a firm commitment to the Center Theater for the Performing Arts and the Cultural Arts Resource Center!

Dirk Lorenz

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