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The Ritz Theater in Escondido. Photo by Shana Thompson
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Church’s proposal for historic theater spurs debate


ESCONDIDO — It’s served as a single-screen movie theater and as a mecca for the showing of adult films in the 1970s, back when it was known as the Pussycat Theater. Back in its days as the Pussycat, in fact, the theater manager was arrested for obscenity in 1973 for screening the film “Deep Throat.”

But the historic Ritz Theatre located at 307 E Grand Avenue in Escondido, first and foremost, has sat mostly dormant for nearly two decades.

Tim Spivey — lead planter and minister at Escondido’s New Vintage Church, member of the San Pasqual Union School District’s governing board, and adjunct professor at Malibu’s Pepperdine University — hopes to change that and has brought a proposal for doing so to the Escondido Historic Preservation Commission. That proposal was presented before the Historic Preservation Commission for the first time on July 19 by its lead architect, Tim Cruz, who works at the firm Plain Joe Studios.

If all goes according to plan, Spivey’s concept will consist of turning the Ritz — which opened for business in 1937 — into a mixed center for the musical and performing arts, as well as a single-screen movie theater. For the time being calling the proposed project “The Grand,” Spivey said that the church’s name is not likely to adorn the walls of either building, a proposal he referred to as a “radical” one.

Spivey said that, though the church would own the building, religious-based content would only make up 10 to 15 percent of its total activities. That would include Sunday morning church gatherings. Under Spivey’s proposal, for the rest of the time, the building could be rented out to the general public, which he sees as a “gift” of sorts to Escondido.

It’s been a plan long in the making, Spivey told The Coast News in an interview, who said his church’s board of directors voted to authorize paying Plain Joe Studios to help put together the proposal at the beginning of 2018. Spivey said New Vintage, a Church founded in 2011, has $7 to $10 million committed to pouring into the project, but said the church would prefer that the city of Escondido green light the project by the end of the year.

If the regulatory and permitting discussions last much longer, Spivey says, his board’s patience may wear thin and they may withdraw the proposal.

Rehab attempts, failures

The high dollar amount for rehabilitation of the building, according to Derry Connolly — president of Escondido’s John Paul the Great University — has been cost prohibitive to many.

The Ritz Theater in Escondido. Photo by Shana Thompson

That includes John Paul the Great University itself, which in the fall of 2017 mulled over the possibility of turning the building into a music and performing arts center and presented its idea to the Historic Preservation Commission. But with the cost escalating into something ranging more than $4 million, John Paul the Great University pulled the plug after spending three to four months mulling over the proposal.

“Ours is pretty straightforward,” said Connolly of John Paul the Great University’s Ritz redevelopment story. “We’re a nonprofit and we were hoping to interest some of our benefactors in funding it and we couldn’t pull it off. It fits in well with what we do. We’ve got a large film program, a large acting program, so it has a nice opportunity of restoring it as a theater and (as a venue) for acting and film, but we just couldn’t swing it.”

Connolly believes it would take more than $5 million to rehabilitate the building.

In 2010 and 2011, another proposal to convert the Ritz Theatre into a three-story cabaret performance dinner theater also fell by the wayside because it would be too costly to update the outdated sewer and water pipe system housed in the octogenarian building. For the proposed developer in that case, Janie Maguire, the costs were already climbing above $2 million.

Maguire ended up suing her real estate agents in the Superior Court of San Diego County in 2011, alleging they had misled her on the “obstacles to develop the property,” according to a ruling made by the California Court of Appeals in 2016. The Court of Appeals agreed with Maguire, awarding her over $180,000 in damages.

She had originally purchased the property for $950,000, with $875,000 in financing, according to the Appeals Court ruling. Yet, after the offer was accepted by the seller, the deal was reneged because the seller said she was an “uninformed buyer” and did not realize all of the additional costs she would incur to revamp the building going forward.

Fossil or endangered species

For New Vintage’s proposal, though, costs do not appear to be among the most pressing issues. Patience and willingness to comply with all of the bureaucratic hoops, though, may be, according to Spivey.

Referring to the theater as a “black hole” as it currently stands, Spivey said that were the city of Escondido not to authorize his church’s plan, it would be akin to “preserving a fossil and not an endangered species.”

Meaning, he explained, that under one scenario, the space would be alive and feature daily activities such as film screenings, plays and musical theater events. And under the current plan, the theater survives as a skeleton of its former self.

Restoration Community Arts

Though the proposed redeveloped Ritz would be owned and run by New Vintage Church, a limited liability corporation has been created for the venture called Restoration Community Arts LLC. Were the proposal to receive city of Escondido approval, New Vintage Church would close the doors of its current building located at 1300 S. Juniper Street and move a mile up the road into the historic Ritz Theater.

There is a twist, however.

New Vintage’s plan also involves bulldozing the building on the corner of Grand Avenue and Juniper Street, which houses the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. Spivey says that, though that property is not designated as a historic property by the city of Escondido, its historic value was still asked about by the Historic Preservation Commission during the July 19 meeting, which is reflected in the commission’s meeting minutes.

To Spivey, not having both buildings would be a deal-breaker, because he said the 301 E. Grand Avenue location — currently a single-story edifice — would in his vision serve as an important two-story location for children’s and family activities. That building is listed on the city of Escondido’s Historic Survey, as is the Ritz Theatre, but unlike the Ritz is not also listed on the city of Escondido’s Register of Historic Places.

“A new two-story, approximately 10,000 square foot commercial building would be constructed on the subject site,” City of Escondido Senior Planner Jay Paul said via email. “The architecture of the new two story building is being designed to complement the existing art deco/modern style of the Ritz Theatre building. The buildings would be used for a variety of assembly type uses including performing arts, religious services, office uses, classroom type studios and a café on the bottom floor.”

According to a Historical Resource Report document provided to The Coast News, the property at 301 E. Grand Avenue opened as a “companion building” to the Ritz in 1937 and was known as the Grand Market, which sold “fine foods” and had the city’s first grocery carts.

“The Grand”

Were it to open, the business Spivey said he is temporarily calling “The Grand” would sit just four blocks from the Escondido Center for the Arts and five blocks from the Regal Cinemas theater in Escondido, meaning there would be stiff competition. But Spivey says that because they will operate the business as a not-for-profit and have upfront money to pay for the facility, it will not necessarily be a major issue.

The Pussycat Theater circa the 1970s. Courtesy photo

According to the Historical Timeline and City Review Proposal published in July 2010 by Maguire, the last films to play at the Ritz were a double-feature in 1998, screening the films “Mortal Kombat” and “Star Kid.”

The last major action at the Ritz took place in 2003, when a van crashed through the walls of the building during an accident. The driver of that vehicle died.

The Ritz stands as one of only two single-screen movie theaters in North County. The other one, La Paloma Theatre, is still open for business on a daily basis in downtown Encinitas.

Hurdles remain

While New Venture Church has presented its proposal to the Historic Preservation Commission, myriad hurdles remain before approaching the finish line. Firstly, because the church is a religious entity, the First Amendment’s establishment clause may be in play, given governmental entities cannot endorse any religion or religious activity.

“We have been working with the City Attorney’s Office to ensure the proposal and any city actions are in conformance with any potential First Amendment issues and The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA),” Escondido’s Senior City Planner Jay Paul explained. “The two properties are privately owned and any use/development of the sites would need to be in conformance with the city’s Zoning Ordinances/Code and General Plan.”

Further, Escondido’s zoning statue (Section 33-1106) for religious buildings mandates that 40 percent of a “congregation lives within one (1) mile radius of the church and that operational measures will be implemented to minimize vehicular traffic.” It also mandates that sound from church activities “not carry into surrounding properties” and that the church itself be at least 20,000 square feet in size.

Paul further explained that both a Conditional Use Permit and a Master Development Plan is needed by New Vintage Church to proceed.

“These are discretionary approvals which must first be considered by the Historic Preservation Commission (for project architectural design, conformance with historic design guidelines, and appropriateness of the demo of the corner building) along with public hearings before the Planning Commission,” Paul detailed. “The two commissions make recommendations to the City Council that will ultimately make the final determination regarding the project.”

A second round of public hearings would then take place in front of both the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission and then the final proposal would then at last get a vote in front of City Council. Prior to the final Historic Preservation Commission hearing, said Paul, environmental review documents must be submitted for review to the Commission under the authority of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

For now, the issue has been tabled by the Historic Preservation Commission for further view. It is unclear whether a permit will be issued by the end of the year along the timeline set forth by Spivey.