CLEARWATER — Tonight, the City Council must decide whether to remove the historic designation from the 91-year-old Capitol Theatre to smooth the way for a major renovation.
Ruth Eckerd Hall, which operates the city-owned theater in downtown Clearwater, has asked the city to drop that designation to give the hall more leeway in its $7 million renovation and expansion of the theater, scheduled to begin by Dec. 1.
Specifically, Ruth Eckerd intends to merge the outer facades of the Capitol Theatre and a small, 98-year-old building that's next door at the southeast corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue. Ruth Eckerd is also asking the city to remove the historic designation from that building, which is called the Clearwater Evening Sun building or the Pat Lokey building. It will be merged with the Capitol to create more seating, lobby space, restrooms and dressing rooms.
The smaller structure is one of Clearwater's oldest commercial buildings. It dates from 1914 and was originally brick masonry. Clearwater's planning staff, which reviews the legality of building plans, believes that giving the two buildings the same stuccoed Mediterranean Revival look would "give a false historical representation" — basically, that it would create fake history.
They're recommending that the City Council deny Ruth Eckerd's request at tonight's council meeting.
However, council members don't see it that way. They think city staffers are making a mountain out of a molehill. They like Ruth Eckerd's proposed design for the theater.
Most important, a majority of council members want the Capitol Theatre's upcoming renovation to move forward on schedule. The city has invested millions to turn the place into a performing arts center that draws visitors to Clearwater's sleepy downtown.
Ruth Eckerd officials say it would be a significant problem to shift the construction dates around because many of the acts that appear at the Capitol are booked a year in advance.
"There's a lot at stake," said council member Jay Polglaze. "This is the economic driver in our downtown right now. … I strongly recommend that we approve this project."
Speaking at a council work session Tuesday, Mayor George Cretekos worried that denying Ruth Eckerd's request at this point would send the Capitol Theatre's renovation into a six-month bureaucratic limbo.
He also thinks the city isn't giving Ruth Eckerd enough notice that there's a problem; Ruth Eckerd unveiled plans for the Capitol Theatre's new look back in April.
"If we don't approve it, then Ruth Eckerd Hall isn't going to meet the commitments that it's made — not only to its vendors, but also to the city," the mayor said.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson pointed out that it was Clearwater that designated these two buildings as historic in an effort to get federal grants for their renovation. Those grants never came.
"I think we might have blown this grossly out of proportion. This was not designated a historic site until we designated it as such," Gibson said. "I don't want to see Ruth Eckerd get caught up in the bureaucracy that they would get caught up in if we don't approve this."
Council members also noted that the smaller corner building at 401 Cleveland St. has been significantly changed by various owners over the decades.
The 5,600-square-foot building used to house a women's fashion boutique. It's now being leased by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, which plans to move across the street.
The Capitol Theatre's upcoming renovation is supposed to be finished by October 2013. The building's facade is to be redone in soft beige, with a green-tile trim and vintage signs. The design is supposed to wrap around the corner of Cleveland Street and further south down Osceola Avenue, which Ruth Eckerd officials say would make the theater look four times bigger.
"We need to make a statement. This is the first anchor for a new downtown," said Ruth Eckerd CEO Zev Buffman. "You need a good-sized building, all unified with the same look. We need to make that strong statement that change is coming to the downtown."
Inside the theater, seating will grow from 485 to nearly 750. A one-story building at 409 Cleveland St., on the other side of the Capitol Theatre, will be torn down and replaced with a two-story building as part of the expansion.
There's one other thing that the City Council hasn't discussed. Ruth Eckerd officials say there's a possibility that the 98-year-old Evening Sun/Pat Lokey building at 401 Cleveland might have to be torn down entirely if it cannot be renovated to meet modern construction codes.
Ruth Eckerd's architect on the project said as much during a Community Development Board meeting on Tuesday afternoon. Like Clearwater's planning staff, the city's development board also recommended not removing the buildings' historic designation.
Buffman, the Ruth Eckerd CEO, said they don't know yet if they'll be able to save the corner building. He said initial explorations have found evidence of termites there. "With buildings over 90 years old, that close to the water, there are a lot of surprises," he said. "Potentially there is risk, because we are totally changing the Lokey Building into something that it has never been."