"Remember the Cotton Club!"
That could be the battle cry for Virginia-Highland homeowners who are once again trying to prevent a high-occupancy, live-music venue from moving into the old Hilan Theatre.
Six years after residents' protests forced the now-defunct Cotton Club concert hall to find another home in the basement of the Tabernacle downtown, Inman Park Properties is again seeking permits for its two-story building at 800 N. Highland Ave. This time the company is shooting to turn the former 1940s movie theater into an event facility with separate bars on three levels, including a rooftop party deck that could accommodate a live band.
The firm -- which also owns such landmark properties as the Clermont Hotel and the circular, former Trust Company Bank building that houses the just-opened Piebar restaurant -- recently completed extensive renovations to the old theater, which last served as home to the Metropolitan Community Church in the early '90s. The front of the building is occupied by a Starbucks and a Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor. A company Web page indicates -- prematurely, it seems -- that the facility is available for rent for plays, wedding receptions, bar-mitzvahs, banquets and musical performances.
But even before a high-profile campaign against the proposal has the chance to get off the ground, the project may be doomed. Earlier this month, the city's Neighborhood Planning Unit-F voted to recommend denial of permits, following an earlier thumbs-down from the Virginia-Highland Civic Association. That group's president, Kevin Cronin (no, not the ex-REO singer) says neighbors are wary of allowing a major nightclub-type business into what is already a packed party district.
"These are essentially the same plans they proposed for the Cotton Club," Cronin says, adding that the building can hold more than 750 people yet would have little dedicated parking.
If there is a battle, the outcome could turn on a discrepancy over how to interpret a city restriction that a nightclub be located at least 300 feet from nearby homes. Inman Park Properties is arguing that the 300 feet should be measured from somewhere in the middle of the coffee shop, a few feet from the doors that lead into the theater space. City officials, however, maintain that the measurement must be taken from the cornerstone of the building itself, meaning the theater falls just short of meeting the distance requirement.
If the proposal is ultimately denied, Cronin helpfully suggests that the owners could lease the space to a restaurant -- provided that customers wouldn't mind dining in a building with no windows.
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