Developers vie to restore Parkway Theatre in Charles North

The Maryland Film Festival would transform the historic and long-shuttered Parkway Theatre into a venue for small independent films and concerts under one of three proposals to enliven a key intersection in Baltimore's Charles North neighborhood.

Two other developers also hope to restore the former movie palace, where vaudeville acts also once played, and bring in live music, theater and other performances, the Baltimore Development Corp. said Tuesday.


The BDC, the city's economic development agency, said it had received three proposals to redevelop the theater at 3 W. North Ave. and adjacent buildings at 1 W. North Ave. and 1820 N. Charles St. in response to a request by the agency in December.

The Charles North neighborhood near Penn Station belongs to the city's Station North Arts and Entertainment District, an up-and-coming area that has attracted new arts and theater venues and restaurants over the past few years.

City officials see the redevelopment of the Parkway, along with that of the long-vacant Chesapeake Restaurant, as key projects in the neighborhood's ongoing revitalization.

Under one proposal for the Parkway, the Maryland Film Festival and developer Cross Street Partners would create a three-screen complex with a 420-seat main theater and two smaller theaters to show independent films and host live music. Festival organizers would move their offices to the site and also bring in a restaurant.

The project would provide a much-needed venue for the small, independent films that movie buffs increasingly want to see — but that typically never make it to Baltimore, said Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. The Parkway would allow the annual film festival to expand, giving it three more screens in addition to those at the Charles, the Senator and other auditoriums used during the festival, he said.

"The real gap is the part of the film world growing the fastest — small, independent films," Dietz said, adding that the festival operators had been searching for theater space in the city.

"We see [the demand] at the festival," he continued. "People hear about films that get written up at Cannes or Sundance and play in New York and they have no chance to see them here."

Another proposal, by developer Samuel Polakoff's Property Consulting Inc. and partner Toby Blumenthal, would create a mixed-use project with a renovated theater for live entertainment. The other buildings would be demolished or renovated and incorporated into the theater complex. Some new construction would be involved.

Polakoff said Tuesday that the proposal, including a renovation that would allow audiences of up to 1,000 people, was based on several years' worth of input from community members and potential performing groups.

"This is something that was developed based on what the community told us … and what they want to see on that important corner," Polakoff said.

He said his company has been working with nonprofit organizations that want to be part of the programming.

"There are a number of groups excited about this," he said. "We envision having live music, we envision covering a lot of the spectrum, with the ability to do classical and jazz up to cutting-edge and even pop acts. We will do performance art, comedy, children's shows. We have the ability to serve groups that need larger space sometimes but not all the time."

The venue could also be used for catered events and professional lecture series and movie nights, he said.

The third proposal is from the Station North Arts Company, led by Kevin Brown, Gregg Mason and David Sawyer. They would gut most of the theater's interior but restore features such as a ceiling dome. The group would use the theater as an entertainment venue for live performances and film.


Sawyer envisions concerts, lectures and debates in a space that is versatile enough to become a dinner theater at times.

The proposal would include an arts-oriented newsstand, a wine bar, a spa, a restaurant or bakery, and a food market on the ground floor. Office suites and production facilities would be located on the second floor, with apartments on the third floor.

"That corner is one of the most important spaces in the Station North Arts District and deserves majesty as an attraction," Sawyer said. "What you see going on [in Station North] already has made that area a lot more lively than it used to be. It's important to complement what is going on down there. We looked at what is missing in the community."

The Parkway Theatre, patterned after London's West End Theatre and used as a movie and vaudeville house, was built in the early years of the 20th century. It was acquired by the Loews organization in 1926 and remodeled as a movie house.

The building was acquired and closed by theater owner Morris A. Mechanic in 1952 and reopened in 1956 as the Five West Art Theatre, a movie house. That facility closed in the mid-1970s. The theater has been vacant since 1998.