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Brian Miller
Real Estate Editor

September 3, 2020

On the Block: Wanna buy a century-old movie theater? The Ark Lodge is on the market

Movies last played at The Ark Lodge Cinemas in March, then its three screens went dark, and ticket sales evaporated. The business — separate from building ownership — has since been trying to scrape by with T-shirt, gift card and sticker sales, plus virtual presentations of some titles.

The former Masonic Hall last traded for $500,000 in 2000 to a pair of local investors, Alex Rosenast and Keith Robbins. Now it's on the market again, listed at $2.5 million by Cameron Kent and Tom Graff of Ewing & Clark.

The two-story building was developed in 1921 at 4812 Rainier Ave. S. in Columbia City, back when the streetcar ran past and movies were new — and still silent, for that matter. Today, the 4,563-square-foot property is zoned up to 40 feet. The building isn't landmarked, but it has some protections by virtue of being in the Columbia City Landmark District.

Photo by Brian Miller [enlarge]
The cinema has been a favorite in Columbia City for years, but now its future seems dark.

The brokers say the Ark Lodge has 9,360 square feet, including a mezzanine. The problem, of course, is that the space is configured as cinemas. Repurposing it for residential or commercial uses would be expensive. The closest example is the former Harvard Exit on Capitol Hill, aka the Woman's Century Club, where the Mexican Consulate uses the old downstairs cinema for offices and customer service — something like a bank lobby. It's grand, but not an efficient use of space.

The Masons constructed their Columbia City hall with wood framing and masonry. (John Lawrence McCauley was the architect.) It would almost certainly require a costly seismic retrofit for new uses. Ceilings are high: 22 feet on the ground floor, and 15 feet above.

Buying the building for continued operation a theater, even post-pandemic, seems unlikely. Ark Lodge operator David McRae told The Seattle Times last year, pre-coronavirus, that ticket sales were down 60% compared to 2018. The rise of digital streaming has become even more pronounced in our stay-at-home era, and the movie biz has been fundamentally altered by coronavirus.

Nationally, even big publicly traded movie chains like AMC have warned they might fail if virus-frightened filmgoers stay away much longer. That chain, Regal and Cinemark had limited national openings last Friday—but with decidedly mixed results. Bill & Ted Face the Music grossed only $1.1 million on about 1,000 screens, according to Box Office Mojo (which is part of IMDb, which is owned by Amazon).

People may be waiting for that movie, and others, to arrive for home viewing. Amazon, Netflix and even Apple now lead the Hollywood battle for eyeballs. (Even then, they lag far behind Facebook and gaming.)

Here in Seattle, well before the pandemic, we've seen a steady shuttering of cinemas including the Harvard Exit, Seven Gables, Guild 45th and the Neptune. The Ark Lodge seems destined to follow, despite a strong run that began in 2012 when McRae took over what had been the single-screen Columbia City Cinema, run by Paul Doyle from 2004 to 2011. Fire code and financial problems dogged that business until it folded. McRae, an experienced theater operator, and the building owners then spent many thousands to add two screens upstairs, and convert to digital projection.

The Varsity and Grand Illusion Cinema in the U District appear equally at risk.

And a final ominous footnote: Vulcan closed the Cinerama in May, supposedly for renovations. (The Guild 45th's owner said the same in 2017, but it never reopened; that crumbling property remains on the market, still unsold.) Vulcan folded its arts and entertainment division this summer.

The movie-loving Paul Allen, who died two years ago, bought and saved the Cinerama in 1998, then spent millions on multiple renovations and upgrades. No new plans have been filed there at 2100 Fourth Ave., which Vulcan Real Estate could presumably redevelop. The disposition of Allen's over $20 billion estate hasn't been settled yet. The Cinerama corner in Belltown is zoned up to 440 feet.

Got a tip? Contact DJC real estate editor Brian Miller at brian.miller@djc.com or call him at (206) 219-6517.

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