There is a fresh hole along the edge of King’s Square, the small park that marks the focal point of uptown Saint John.
Three steel columns shoot from the square’s northern edge, surrounded by snow-covered rubble. They’re the last remains of the Paramount Theatre, a once-flourishing art-deco movie house that was knocked down late last year after more than 60 years in operation.
“When you take away these iconic buildings, it tends to have a detrimental effect on the surrounding area,” says New Brunswick filmmaker and musician Michael McDonald, who launched an ill-fated grassroots campaign to restore the theatre several years ago. “If you want people to live back in the uptown, you’ve got to give them a reason to live in the uptown.”
There are fears that Saint John’s Paramount experience may play out the same way in Edmonton. Its Paramount Theatre, which opened in 1952 on Jasper Avenue, has been home since 2006 to the City Centre Church, which leases it on a month-to-month basis.
The building’s landlord, Procura, has tried to find a new entertainment tenant for the 818-seat theatre to no avail. If it doesn’t find one soon, the company will have no choice but to knock it down, too.
“The downtown does not, as of yet, have enough of a residential base” to attract someone to lease it, Procura president George Schluessel says. And so, like many downtown theatres in North America, it is unlikely to ever reopen as a theatre.
In small and mid-sized cities, downtown movie theatres are no longer the cultural destinations they used to be, prompting developers to find other uses for their properties as people flock to the suburbs, followed by sprawling big-box multiplexes and other options – legal and illegal – to watch movies at home.
While multipurpose theatres in many cities have been preserved and even restored – such as Saint John’s performing arts Imperial Theatre – those that were purpose-built for film after the Second World War are difficult to restore for any other purpose, says Ryerson University’s Paul Moore, a historian of moviegoing and movie theatres.
Alain Miguelez, an Ottawa-based urban planner and theatre historian, says, “We say we like movie theatres, but maybe we don’t go to them as much.”
A movie used to be an event, premiering in downtown “palace-like” theatres in major cities, before making the rounds in theatres in residential neighbourhoods and smaller cities, says Mr. Miguelez, author of the 2004 book A Theatre Near You: 150 Years of Going to the Show in Ottawa-Gatineau. As the event experience has fizzled, so, too, has the old model of moviegoing.
Ottawa has seen not one but two movie theatres shut their doors downtown this past year. Mr. Miguelez suspects this was primarily for internal business reasons – both multiplexes had been previously owned by Empire Theatres, which sold 46 movie theatres to Cineplex Inc. and Landmark Cinemas last year, after closing others in locations such as Victoria. Because Ottawa’s downtown population is increasing, Mr. Miguelez expects the downtown’s lack of theatres could be remedied – but smaller cities may not have such luck.
Downtown theatres are great for walkable city cores, but with the exception of Toronto and Vancouver, small and medium-sized cities are struggling to grow their cores, says David Gordon, professor and director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University in Kingston.
While “active cores” and transit-accessible suburbs grew by 3 per cent across Canada between 2006 and 2011, the more distant suburbs grew by 9 per cent, or 1.4 million people, according to Prof. Gordon’s research with census data. Once people return to these outer suburbs from work at the end of the day, it’s unlikely they’ll drive back downtown to catch a movie.
The closure of downtown theatres has been happening for decades. The 1,600-seat Capitol Theatre in Saskatoon, for instance, was demolished in 1979. Kingston, where Prof. Gordon lives, recently lost its mainstream downtown cinema; the Empire Capitol 7 Cinema closed in 2012. The building had shown movies for more than 90 years. Kingston is now left with one downtown theatre: the two-screen independent Screening Room, which focuses on specialty, art-house and classic films, though as of late has been showcasing Oscar nominees.
“A grocery store and a cinema are two things that are a foundation for good downtowns,” Prof. Gordon says. “We have to find a way to keep these things in cities, to keep neighbourhoods adjacent to downtowns vibrant.”
Keeping the city centre vibrant was Mr. McDonald’s chief effort in Saint John. He grew up in the area (called uptown, as opposed to downtown, thanks to its steep main street) and spent several years trying to preserve and restore the Paramount as a symbol of the city’s arts and culture.
It was a gamble, but with half-decent odds. While the city’s Odeon Theatre had been torn down across the square in the 1990s to make way for a parking lot, the Imperial Theatre, which opened in 1913, was fully restored in the 1980s and ’90s and is an uptown landmark.
Uptown Saint John, a business advocacy group, paid $2,700 a month to cover the Paramount’s costs for a year and a half, but eventually its board voted to stop the payments. No one stepped forward to cover the estimated $3.5-million to buy and restore the tattered structure; many people felt culture spending could have been focused elsewhere.
Lot owner Paul Daeres says he didn’t want to knock down the building but had no choice when no one expressed interest in fixing it and becoming a tenant. He says the site will become a parking lot for the foreseeable future; they’re the closest thing to money-making developments in a city that is already bleeding office space.
He says he’d happily sell the lot to someone who plans to develop it – “I’d like Saint John to move ahead, not backward” – but doesn’t see that happening soon.
Saint John, a city of 70,000, has become a vastly suburban metropolitan area as residents moved to neighbouring Kennebecasis River and St. John River valley communities, hollowing its core.
If there’s a city that could learn from Saint John’s Paramount Theatre, it’s Edmonton, which, though much larger, faces the same problem: There simply aren’t enough people living downtown.
If Edmonton’s downtown office market picks up, says Procura’s Mr. Schluessel, then the residential market might follow suit. With another 5,000 or 10,000 residential units, a cinema operator might be able to make a case to lease the property.
But, he says, “it’s very valuable land per square foot. It has a very high density allocation to it, and I don’t you think you could ever make the numbers work renting it out on its own merit.”
And where Saint John has the Imperial to make a case against restoring the Paramount across King’s Square, the resuscitation of Edmonton’s Paramount is handicapped by historic theatres operating other neighbourhoods away from downtown, like the Princess Theatre on Whyte Avenue.
On top of that, Mr. Schluessel bought the Paramount land parcel with a redevelopment plan in mind, and he simply doesn’t expect a long-term lease offer from a theatre, even if the office market stays flat.
“You never go broke owning a parking lot in this town,” he says.