Public uproar, private offer for Park Theatre

A resident’s brand-new plan to restore Park Theatre could rescue city leaders from controversial plans to buy the building and lease it to another resident to house a long-running dance studio.

The Menlo Park City Council voted 3-2 on Oct. 2 to spend $2.2 million to purchase the 50-year-old movie theater from owner Howard Crittenden, and then to lease it to Andy Duncan. Duncan hopes to restore the Art Moderne-style theater and house the Menlo Park Academy of Dance, which has operated in town for nearly five decades.

That decision earned city leaders almost immediate ire from some residents who felt the expense as an inappropriate use of public money. Now, resident Tom Hilligoss hopes to privately fund Park Theatre’s restoration and open it as a community entertainment venue for films and live performances.

“I told the council that if it seems as if his plan has merit, I would back away for 30 days to see if he could get something put together,” Duncan said.

Crittenden proposed tearing down the theater, which has been closed since 2002, and building offices. He withdrew his proposal in 2006. If the city razes the theater, it could face litigation, Mayor Kelly Fergusson said.

However, an initial plan for the city to donate $500,000 to Duncan’s cause earned plenty of scorn from residents, many of whom also opposed this month’s alternative.

“The Park Theatre proposals actually offer very little to the general public — the main beneficiaries are Mr. Duncan, Mr. Crittenden and the dance studio,” resident Roxanne Rorapaugh said.

While resident Henry Riggs called Duncan’s plan “admirable,” he said, “There seems to be no consensus, even in an environment where simply being 50 years old implies ‘history,’ that the Park is worth restoration.”

Many cityleaders disagree — as does Hilligoss, who remembers walking to the Park Theater to see movies as a child growing up in Atherton.

“I’m hopeful that I can turn this into an opportunity, and that the public will pay for the building because they’ll come and enjoy things there,” Hilligoss said. “I want to offer performing arts, some cinema, a lot of community-oriented events. That’s my vision.”

Likewise, Fergusson said that if the city goes forward with plans to purchase the building, it’s following the example of other towns.

“The city has a history of investing in properties downtown. Many cities do that,” Fergusson said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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