Investors and visionaries have planned for two years to open the steel doors beneath the theater's white spires to screen indie films, host bands, stage plays.
The problem's in the parking.
To renovate and reopen the gutted movie theater as a mixed-use venue, its developers must build a 90-space parking lot. A city ordinance adopted last year says that a theater like the Madison must have one parking space per every 100 square feet.
And in East Atlanta, parking is scarce.
Reggie Ealy, who hopes to open the new Madison with investor Denman DuBose, awaits the word of their landlord, who has access to some parking possibilities behind the old theater. But there are no promises so far. And until there are, there's little DuBose and Ealy can do.
"We had all the power and everything turned off," Ealy says, eight months after he first got involved. "We put it in the lock-down. It's such a waste to have people sitting over there, twiddling their thumbs."
Holly Bogossian fears that what kept another proposed venue from opening in East Atlanta last summer may plague the Madison.
Bogossian, chairperson of land use and zoning for East Atlanta's Neighborhood Planning Unit, recalls a house on Flat Shoals Avenue, less than a block up the street from the Madison Theater. A successful Atlanta club owner had planned to open a new club called Mint in the house.
But, according to Bogossian, the club owner couldn't find enough land to build parking spaces. The ordinance provides for exceptions, such as businesses sharing parking spaces. But in the case of Mint, city officials wouldn't budge.
"I've gotten so, so disgusted by this," Bogossian says. "It's like they want us to grow, but they won't give us the tools."
She mostly blames Atlanta councilwoman Sherry Dorsey for supporting the "unrealistic parking requirements." Plans for several proposed businesses are stalled because of the parking rule, according to Bogossian, and Dorsey has the power to change the requirements -- or at least support exceptions.
"She is standing in the way," Bogossian says.
The ordinance is tailored to fit the suburbs and is muddled in the city by arbitrary enforcement and political bribery, Bogossian says. "Urban neighborhoods have different needs and requirements than the car-friendly suburbs do."
Dorsey says the ordinance prevents traffic congestion that clogs both intown Atlanta and its suburbs. Ealy and DuBose have not yet applied to the city's zoning board for a building permit (they're waiting on their landlord), so Dorsey is not yet familiar with their specific situation on Flat Shoals Avenue.
"But as a whole, I know there is a parking problem there," Dorsey says.
Restraints placed by the city, she adds, serve a purpose: "We don't want the same problems Buckhead has."
She says she has heard residents' complaints about parking spillover on streets neighboring East Atlanta Village. Perhaps one solution is to find a local business or organization, be it the library or the nearby auto parts dealer, who would grant bars and restaurants use of their lots after business hours, she says.
Although she hasn't looked behind the Madison, or any business, to see what space is available, Dorsey says she also may support the construction of one big parking lot that could relieve some individual business owners of their parking responsibilities. But she stops short of calling that an actual solution.
"There may be some real good reason why that wouldn't work," she says of the shared lot. And if that doesn't work -- and if nothing else works -- then finding parking will remain a challenge for new businesses.
"The developers will certainly have to be creative," she says.
Ealy, who opened Kaya and the former Yin Yang Cafe, is awed that he was able to complete his past projects in the space of four months. Even if he gets the parking spaces for the Madison, he still must win the approval of the zoning board. He then will use that approval to try to get a building permit. Under the new ordinance, that process will take five months, he estimates. And then he and DuBose can begin the four-month, $1 million renovation of the theater.
He envisions a decadent, Moorish den, with "loose seating," blood-red drapery, gold trim -- East Atlanta's own Rialto, Variety Playhouse and Fox Theatre rolled into one. It better look damn good when it's done, he says.
"Because then it's going to take you another year to earn your money back."
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