Last Day for Local Group to Gain Support to Transform Abandoned Theatre
Just after Rodney Grist and his group, Livingston Cultural Arts Theatre (LCAT), appeared on the scene to revitalize the abandoned Livingston Avenue Theatre, Westerville developer The Woda Group swooped in with a $12 million check to fund a low-income senior housing project.
Grist, a 20-year Columbus City Schools educator and relatively new resident of Old Oaks, started seeking support for his idea in August. Since then he’s bounced between area commission members, city council members and developers, unsuccessfully selling his dream of a civic engagement center with space for forum theater, musical performances, dance and art studios and gallery space.
The point is to create a draw to an area that, other than the continued expansion of Nationwide Children’s Hospital a mile down the road, “looks like it’s been forgotten by the city.”
“I’m happy to have [senior housing] there, just not in that location,” Grist said. “The problem with Woda’s proposal is it doesn’t provide anything in terms of commerce or growth for the area. They’re going to take that building and turn it into senior apartments, and then they’re going to go away.”
For residents of the area who’ve seen it sit vacant for years, the prospect of real money coming in and transforming the eyesore is too appealing to pass up, even if it’s not the ideal purpose for the 70-year-old structure.
With four “Yes” votes and four abstentions from the Livingston Avenue Area Commission, the decision will go to Columbus City Council on Monday to grant Woda the variances it needs to get started. Before then, Grist is hoping someone with either a big check or major influence will take his side. His initial contact was Mayor Andrew Ginther with the hopes that, similar to former Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s commitment to the King-Lincoln District’s Lincoln Theatre, Ginther would make the Livingston Avenue Theatre his own pet project.
“When he was asked about his priority for the city: neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods,” Grist said. “And senior housing in that spot is not doing anything for the neighborhood long term.”
The key difference between the two theaters is their history. The Lincoln Theatre, maintaining its identity even through its vacancy, started out as an important cultural center for the neighborhood. Born in 1928 as the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom, it was a movie and jazz hub. Changes to the area in the form of highway construction and resident displacement closed the joint, years transforming it into a decaying shell. A superficial fix-up saved the theatre in 1992, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Livingston Avenue Theatre opened in 1946 at 1567 E. Livingston Avenue and has worn several faces. From adult theatre to gay friendly club to possible rehab facility, its identity has been somewhat more malleable; “restoring it” could have many meanings.
Told by Livingston Avenue Area Commission Chair Terry Elliot that LCAT came to the table too late, Grist may have to consider other options in the neighborhood, like the vacant Champion Theatre occupying a lot less than a mile away, an idea he’s not thrilled about. Providing less space and carrying less significance, he doesn’t know that it would provide everything he needs for a full cultural arts center.
In what might be the last effort made to realize LCAT’s dream, Grist is leading a phone campaign. His group of 35 supporters, and whoever else they can get, will make calls to each council member asking them to consider LCAT’s proposal before approving Woda’s variances on Monday.
Photos by Walker Evans.