Canal Street anchor under consideration by City Council

November 1 2010 | Latest News

Saenger Theatre is about to get a new lease on life

Thursday, October 21, 2010, 10:33 AM

Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune

A grand plan to restore the iconic Saenger Theatre to its former glory is poised to take a big step forward today when the New Orleans City Council considers a long-term lease with the property's longtime private owner-managers.

The Saenger Theatre Renewal Project is part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's recovery plan for the next three years.

If the council, as expected, approves the 52-year deal with the Saenger Theatre Partnership of Houston, developers say work will commence in a few weeks on a $45.8 million project they hope to complete by late 2011.

"We feel this is another milestone in a series of milestones as we move toward the reopening,'' said Cindy Connick, executive director of the Canal Street Development Corp., the city agency overseeing the ambitious undertaking.

Until now, most progress has been limited to architectural drawings and negotiations with financiers. But council action would clear the way for the development team to lock down its financing and dispatch construction crews to the Canal Street site.

Preliminary work, including asbestos removal and storage of historic lighting fixtures that would be reinstalled later, could begin in early November, said David Anderson, a top executive with the Saenger Theatre Partnership.

Full-fledged construction will start the day after the financing is secured, he said.

Besides $15 million in federal grants funneled through the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the rest of the budget relies on private sources.

Developers are taking advantage of five different types of state and federal tax credits to pay for the renovation, including historic tax credits that require builders to adhere to strict preservation rules.

"This is a really good deal for the city,'' said Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, whose administration is counting on the return of the 83-year-old Saenger to spark similar revivals at two other shuttered Canal Street theaters, the Joy and the Orpheum.

"Once you get an anchor, you hope others will follow,'' Berni said.

The plan to resurrect the Saenger, which has been closed since Katrina's floodwaters swamped it five years ago, goes far beyond repairs to the sprawling building's underground infrastructure, orchestra-level seats and ornate Florentine interiors.

Instead, the theater will be reborn to more closely reflect the way it looked when it opened in 1927 as a vaudeville playhouse before morphing into the city's pre-eminent movie palace.

The restoration plan calls for years of veneer to be stripped away to expose the original color scheme, and for modern fixtures to be replaced with period hardware. With the help of historic photos, builders will install new windows, doors and poster boxes that strive to recreate the original look.

Overseeing the undertaking will be the Martinez + Johnson architecture firm based in Washington, which has won numerous awards over the past two decades for restoring landmark theaters, including the Boston Opera House.

Broadmoor of Metairie has been selected as the project's general contractor.

Besides the lease document, the council will be asked to approve a separate ordinance formalizing the Saenger Theatre Partnership donation of the theater building to Canal Street Development Corp.

In return, the management group will run the theater for 52 years, provided it hosts at least 80 shows a year at the 2,800-seat theater and sells 100,000 tickets annually. A portion of sales will be earmarked for rent and future capital improvements.

In addition to live theater, the developers plan to use the Saenger for comedy shows, musical acts and movies.

Anderson said his team plans to stage its first holiday-themed shows in December 2011. He said the initial Broadway production, set for spring 2012, will be "The Lion King," a show that the Saenger's current configuration cannot accommodate.

Plans call for the theater's stage to grow by about 40 percent, with the back wall extended 16 feet into Iberville Street. The road would be closed to all traffic except trailers delivering sets, lighting and props for traveling Broadway shows.

Other physical upgrades will be possible largely because of the incorporation of the four-story building at 1101 Canal St. into construction plans.

That building, formerly a Popeyes fast-food outlet and office space, was acquired by the Canal Street Development Corp. a year ago.

Developers hope to open a white-tablecloth restaurant on the site. The former La Salle Hotel, located on the Basin street side of the building, is not part of the Saenger redevelopment.

The proposed lease includes a provision that allows the city to use the theater for "fundraisers or other purposes'' and collect all revenue from such use for up to 10 days each year. The Canal Street Development Corp. will pay the operating costs on those days.

The city also would get the exclusive right to use one premium box, with at least four seats, "for official business for all shows.''