Topic: Tyler, TX: Liberty Theater to be acquired, redeveloped
From: Dallas, TX
Registered: Feb 2003
posted January 28, 2007 01:28 PM
BRINGING SIZZLE BACK TO THE SQUARE
By MARK COLLETTE, Staff Writer
In the dim, dusty innards of the Liberty Theater on Thursday morning, John and Deborah O'Sullivan stood pondering what to do with two carbon arc lamp projectors, like coal-black torpedoes, stubborn reminders of the swift and staying downfall of a city's cultural center.
A screenless, empty stage gaped back at them over a pit that once held seats, long since removed in one of several failed efforts to turn the Liberty into something new.
Outside on Erwin Street, the ominous words, "FOR SALE", stood alone on the orange marquee above a littered box office, the windows streaked with the glue of old handbills.
But the Liberty is not for sale.
The O'Sullivans bought it, and though they are months away from a solid plan, their purchase represents the best hope yet that the building could become part of a bigger push to bring sizzle back to the square.
"I feel like it's going to take a lot more than just one person doing one building at a time," O'Sullivan said.
LIKE A PLAGUE
It was April Fools' Day in 1975 when Broadway Square Mall was dedicated, the 55-acre building a behemoth on Tyler's empty south side. Few could have known that the fool was downtown culture.
"We thought, 'Gosh, there they are out in the country. What did they do that for?' But everybody just flocked to be around the mall," said Mary Jane McNamara, who came to Tyler as a child with the oil boom in 1931, the year after the Liberty opened on the square.
Some people pin the beginning of downtown's demise on the decision to destroy the old courthouse and erect the now-ailing structure. In 1955, the new courthouse was a harbinger of the modern era. Broadway Avenue was allowed to move past the courthouse, and it was thought that the thoroughfare would provide an artery for development around the square.
For a time, it did. But in a story that played out in cities across the country in the 1970s, Broadway Square Mall planted a cornerstone of southward development, inflicting deep, slow-healing wounds in downtown Tyler, city planning consultants said.
"Corporations bought banks, tore down buildings and rebuilt, thinking modernization would attract people," Ms. McNamara said. "Modernization doesn't attract people. They'll go to see a town that's got the Alamo in it."
By 1980, about when the Liberty closed, the city's economic engines were long gone down South Broadway Avenue, leaving downtown in their dust.
"All the buildings were empty," Ms. McNamara said. "It would just make you weep, to go around the town and see it looked as though we had a giant plague and everyone was dead and gone."
A day before Valentine's Day in 1940, lines of people snaked down the street for the East Texas premiere of "Gone With the Wind" at the Liberty. It spent its waning years showing Spanish-language films, while the Tyler, whose marquee remains behind Rick's on the Square, went silent in 1982.
The downtown dream, a pedestrian-friendly place with a culture that thrives after 5 p.m., is a core component of the Tyler 21 Comprehensive Plan. But drawing retail and the arts - bringing back a downtown theater in the age of the multiplex - isn't part of an overnight business plan.
So the O'Sullivans won't be erecting a new movie screen. Instead, they envision street-level retail or office space, with apartments above. To solve the parking problem, they propose to take advantage of the Liberty's low seating area, scooping out an underground garage.
Within seven city blocks, the O'Sullivans have bought and renovated eight lots, installing 28 apartments, including their own at the corner of Erwin and Fannin streets. Their first was a bargain: $2 per square foot, won at a tax delinquency auction on the courthouse steps.
It was "a big gamble for the bank to lend money on that, because nobody else had done it downtown," O'Sullivan said.
But there is a growing understanding that revitalizing the city's center means people will have to move there first.
Larissa Brown, chief planning consultant for Goody Clancy, the Boston firm working on Tyler 21, said downtown areas across the country that have realized a renaissance have each started with a soft anchor: beds.
"You'll see stories where a developer decided to take a chance with the first one in, and now thousands of units are going up," she said.
The firm's market analysts say downtown Tyler, conservatively, has the potential for 700 housing units in 10 years.
It will take investors willing to risk. The future of the area between Front Street and Gentry Parkway hinges on a number of unpredictable factors, and that's why O'Sullivan says it will take more than one man working on one lot at a time.
"Downtown revitalization is something that takes place in the context of public-private partnerships," Ms. Brown said. "Lots of different groups sort of have to do their part and care about what happens downtown. The full flowering of it might take some time, but it's also possible, if the right moves are taken, for visible changes to take place within 10 years."
Already, there are auspicious signs for housing.
The North Carolina-based Landmark Group expects to present drawings to the Tyler Planning and Zoning Commission within weeks, said consultant Paul Fitch.
The $11 million proposal calls for renovating the Moore Grocery building at 408 N. Broadway Ave., about three blocks north of the square. It will hold about 88 apartments.
The city of Tyler facilitated the project through federal grants in the form of tax credits, and the city committed $308,100 toward development costs. As a result, Landmark can set rent lower than market rates. To comply with federal rules, tenants will have to have incomes below 60 percent of the nationwide median household income, Fitch said. Based on 2005 census estimates, a tenant's household income would have to be below $27,745.
As for county government, much, of course, hinges on plans for the jail and courthouse. Commissioners and a planning committee indicate they prefer a downtown location, but all else remains undecided.
"Government entities are kind of the Macy's of today," said Beverly Abell, director of Heart of Tyler, the nonprofit group that promotes downtown. "Government is the department store, the anchor of downtowns today."
O'Sullivan, standing in the lobby of the Liberty, was musing about county and city master plans when an Erwin Street pedestrian in a suit and tie, clutching a briefcase, did a double-take upon seeing the front door open.
"What y'all about to do?" the man asked.
"Well, we don't know yet," O'Sullivan said. "We just bought it, so we're going to do something."
"Is it going to be a theater-type thing?"
"I doubt it ... but something will come in."
"That's good! Progress!"
There's no shortage of demand for O'Sullivan projects, or for downtown beds in general. Strangers, mostly young singles and couples seeking an escape from a generic strip-mall culture, already know O'Sullivan's name when they call Ms. Abell at Heart of Tyler. The O'Sullivans seldom advertise their properties, but they stay full.
Demand for carbon arc lamp projectors, however, is not as certain. O'Sullivan thinks he may sell them on eBay.
The interior of the Liberty will lose its stage, and its tenants will see few interior reminders of its past. But O'Sullivan, who as a boy watched those projectors work their magic here, plans to leave one big reminder intact.
"The marquee will stay," he said, "and it will be the Liberty."
Mark Collette covers covers Tyler city government, planning and zoning and the Parks Board. He can be reached at 903.596.6303. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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