Old movie theater may be reborn as arts, events space

More than two decades after it closed, the Balboa Village Theatre in Newport Beach may be brought back to life.

The floor is sand, the ceiling has deteriorated and the roof has holes in it. But the Newport Beach City Council indicated during a study session Tuesday that it will support a plan to convert the "shell of a building, but a functioning building," as City Manager Dave Kiff put it, into a flexible space for various arts-related uses.

The city, which owns the building at 707 E. Balboa Blvd., would operate the space as uniquely envisioned.

There would be no fixed seating, no permanent stage and no food service. Aside from a lobby, restrooms and a spot for storage, it would largely be an "open, flexible, airy venue that can be one thing in the morning and other things in the afternoon and evening," according to a concept plan prepared with the help of city staff and other parties.

As such, the theater could host sculpture classes, lectures on beer making and oil-painting workshops, the plan suggested. It could also be the site of kid-friendly day camps, community art shows, band performances on a portable stage and movie screenings projected on a wall.

"This would be very unique and much different than anything we have," said Laura Detweiler, the city's recreation and senior services director.

The plan says the space could also be rented out for weddings and private parties and used for community meetings by residents on the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island and the needs of organizers of the Christmas Boat Parade and the Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race.

"What we have done here is sort of turned around the emphasis," said Councilman Mike Henn, who represents the peninsula and was involved in coming up with the new direction. "All along, up until now, the emphasis has been on this facility for use as a performing arts facility ... and then a lesser emphasis on arts education and daytime use.

"But the concept that we're talking about here turns that around. It really makes this principally a facility for use for the community."

What to do with the roughly 6,000-square-foot movie theater has been up for debate since it closed in 1992. The city purchased the building for $480,000 in 1998 and leased it to the Balboa Performing Arts Theatre Foundation soon after, according to a staff report.

The foundation tried to oversee a $4.8 million renovation in 2011 using a contribution from the city, available cash and private donations to bring it back as a performing arts facility. But the foundation was unable to raise the $4 million needed, the report said.

Instead of a scaled-back renovation, and with a shrinking board, foundation members worked with Henn and city staff to develop the new arts-center proposal.

"While it's been a long and winding road," Henn said, "I'm really convinced we've ended up in the right place finally."

His colleagues agreed. Councilman Ed Selich was absent.

"There's a lot of things that just don't work 100% privately," Councilman Keith Curry said.

The foundation, the Balboa Village Merchants Assn. and ExplorOcean, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating students about the ocean, also expressed support for the idea.

"Sometimes the best solution is the hardest solution to find," Mayor Rush Hill said.

Staff has estimated the cost of construction and design work at $3.37 million. A more formal estimate will be presented for approval, staff said.

Discussions also will continue with the foundation, the city Arts Commission and the community.

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