Urban growth firm floats idea for Bellevue’s Marianne Theatre

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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The historic Marianne Theatre has been located on Bellevue’s Fairfield Avenue since 1942 but has been untouched since its closing in the 1990s.

Owned by the city of Bellevue since 2014, the theatre remains vacant, though not from a lack of ideas of what should go into the space—most recently, a vision to transform the interior space into a multi-use concept with bars, food trucks, patios, a projector screen, and more.

Bellevue Mayor Charlie Cleves called the idea the best plan he has seen since taking office in 2019.

“I think everybody in the city, when we heard this, liked that there is a proposal out there that would be viable for the Marianne,” Cleves said.

The design was presented to the Bellevue City Council at its meeting on Aug. 9 by urban growth firm Yard & Company. The company has done work for Bellevue in the past—such as creating a “parklet” outdoor seating area for The B-List during the pandemic. Yard & Company Principal, Director of Design and Development Joe Nickol, who gave the presentation Wednesday, is also a Bellevue resident.

Though Nickol is not from Bellevue, he said his wife is, and he hears stories from her father that lead back to the theatre.

“Her father grew up in Bellevue. I’ve heard a few stories about Bellevue over and over and over again,” Nickol said. “A lot of them come back to Marianne where he would have high school events where you go see movies, first dates, things like that. It was very much a center of community life back then.”

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Now thinking about the theatre, Nickol said it sits prominently and nostalgically in the heart of the main street. He said the people at Yard & Company have had in the back of their minds to return the space into a center of community life for Bellevue residents and those that visit the city.

Yard & Company’s concept is “an oasis along a bustling main street.” The idea presented was to restore the historic façade and treat the back of the building as a common gathering spot for things like hosting events and food trucks. Nickol said it would be “a sense of surprise” tucked behind a historic structure.

The company envisions flexible patios and platforms for performances and community gatherings that would act as a “community events headquarters.” The floors are currently sloped, as it was a theatre, so to remedy that, the plans show three levels with their own functions, connected by stairs and ADA-accessible ramps.

The top level closest to the avenue would also be closest to the box office, where a bar, restrooms, and projection screen would be. The next level down would be an intermediate level with a stage for performances, award ceremonies, small musical acts, and more casual seating. The lower level would be a flex space for the food trucks to roll in during the day or for specific events. Nickol said it could also be a place where tables get set out as an expansion of the public space.

The concept presented by Yard & Company. Photo provided | Yard & Company presentation.

The plans also show the existing facade that supports the roof left intact. Part of the back of the structure will have glazing, according to Nickol— which creates a light well by using glass in the ceiling—to be used year-round. About two-thirds of the structure is open with no roof.

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Cleves said this open concept would keep heating and cooling costs down—as there wouldn’t be any heating or cooling in the areas not fully enclosed—which has been a driving force of cost for previous concepts. He said one of the biggest problems with developing the theatre is paying the utility bills.

Cleves said something does need to be done soon with the theatre because it’s deteriorating.

“It’s going to be death by neglect if we don’t do something,” he said. “There just hasn’t been anything that would work.”

Ideas suggested in the past, such as a brewery and luxury condos, never got off the ground.

In 2015, a micro-brewery project proposed by Hardman Investments, LLC was selected following a Request for Proposal process reviewed by a specially-formed community task force of elected officials, city staff, residents, and business owners.

Cleves said the idea never transpired due to cost. Parking is another hindrance to the space; therefore, nothing requiring a large amount of parking can be implemented.

As reported by LINK nky partner WCPO in September 2019, the theatre was then proposed to transform into luxury condos by Brandicorp. At the time, Cleves estimated the cost of a complete renovation at around $1.2 million; today, he said those costs would be north of $1.5 million.

The community was uninterested in the condo idea, which led to it never taking off. Cleves said the community wanted the space to be used for the benefit of everyone, which he said he agreed with. Cleves said the city is interested in pursuing further details with Yard & Company’s concept.

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“Really interesting,” Bellevue City Council member Sean Fischer said at the meeting. “I think there’s a lot going for that (plan), probably most notably that it takes away some of the unfavorable economics of this building. You said the hard part was ‘how.’ That was what I was thinking for the entire presentation.”

Nickol said the ‘how’ will be a big part of the art and science of the project.

Fischer asked Nickol if, during their planning, they considered if the city would own the renovation and lease to a tenant or if the city would sell the property to someone to execute the proposal.

Nickol said there are various scenarios, not just one option right now. Cleves said whether the city would sell or not depends on how details transpire as they move forward.

“As a city official, I would love somebody else to get all the liability of it,” Cleves said. “But then again, we would lose control over what we could do. We could have a city function there whenever we wanted instead of paying someone all the time to use it.”

After the meeting, the council entered an executive session to discuss the transaction details, per Bellevue City Administrator Frank Warnock. No vote was taken afterward.

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