Menlo Park taxpayer money at center of dispute

Controversy is brewing over a plan to restore downtown’s Park Theatre — and whether the city should contribute $500,000 to the cause.

Resident Andy Duncan hopes to restore the building, which has been vacant since the El Camino Real movie house closed in 2002.

However, he lacks the full capital to accomplish his dream of reopening the venue to house the Menlo Park Academy of Dance. He may unveil some new ways of tackling the finances during a community workshop Wednesday.

The City Council in August considered whether to spend $500,000 on the building’s restoration but did not reach a decision. Some opponents called the expense inappropriate.

“It is a horrible precedent to set if you vote to subsidize a private business enterprise with [taxpayer] funds,” resident and former Councilwoman Lee Duboc wrote in a letter to the council.

Howard Crittendon, current owner of the property, proposed tearing down the Art Moderne-style theater and building offices; he withdrew his proposal in 2006.

If the city razes the theater, it could face litigation, Mayor Kelly Fergusson said.

“If we don’t find a solution to Andy Duncan’s proposal, we will be faced with making the finding that it’s OK to destroy what we know to be architecturally significant elements in the building,” Fergusson said. Other cities have been sued for making similar decisions, she added.

First built in 1947, Landmark Theatres operated the 688-seat Park Theatre between 1989 and 2002 as a home for independent and foreign films.

Fergusson proposed restoring the theater, which has been shuttered for nearly five years, in March 2006.

Instead of giving Duncan money, Menlo Park should consider a tax exemption for the property, which would free up funding for restoration, rather than relying on “the Bank of Menlo Park,” suggested resident Stu Soffer.

The workshop takes place Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Burgess Recreation Center, located at 700 Alma St., Menlo Park.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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