Preservationists work to restore Park Theatre in Lincoln Park

A common theory about revitalizing downtowns is that they need a major draw to bring people back. Historic structures, density and unique businesses are all key aspects of a vibrant core but without a concert hall or marque business it's hard to engage visitors.

Leslie Lynch-Wilson thinks the same thing for downtown Lincoln Park. The local resident sees preserving and refurbishing the Park Theatre as key to rebuilding the suburban downtown in Downriver.

She points out how Birmingham, Royal Oak, Farmington and Ann Arbor have preserved their historic downtown theaters and turned them into destination venues. Sometimes they still show movies and sometimes they turn into venues for live performances.

"This could be a showcase for Lincoln Park," Lynch-Wilson says.

She and a group of local residents are part of the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance to help accomplish this. The theater, long a palace for pornography before recently closing, is in danger of being razed so it can be replaced by a mixed-use development from Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency.

Lynch-Wilson doesn't have a problem with the development, just its placement. She is also worried the downtown will struggle and storefronts remain empty without a building that serves as a destination.

"We need some sort of draw there," Lynch-Wilson says. "To build this sort of mixed-use building you need some sort of draw to attract people."

Creating that might not be the easiest task. Louis Piszker, CEO of Wayne Metro, points out that the building only resembles a theater on the outside. The interior has had the stage removed, a concrete slab poured in where the seats should be, is now sub-divided into peep-show rooms, the cieling dropped and the balcony enclose. Simple said, and Piszker says it, "it's not a theater anymore."

"I don't think economically you can restore it and make it an economically viable project," Piszker says.

The Lincoln Park resident would like to see the theater come back, but he doesn't see it. Instead he thinks replacing it with a new mixed-use building will work. he sees a loft-style building, similar to the ones recently constructed in Dearborn's West downtown, would attract more attention to downtown and spurr economic redevelopment.

Although the project isn't a done deal, Piszker hopes to break ground in the fall of 2009.

What is certain is the Park Theatre, 1583 Fort St., is one of the most historic and notable building downtown, for both the right and wrong reasons. Many Downriver residents have fond memories of seeing movies there and it has an iconic exterior that can often define a downtown. It also conjures up recent memories of sex and smutt.

The Park Theatre dates to 1925 and was originally designed by theater architect C. Howard Crane who also designed the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. It underwent a renovation in 1936 where it received the Streamline Moderne design it sports today.

The 600-seat venue served as a movie theater until the 1970s. It briefly became a concert venue where greats like Bob Seger and MC5 played. Seger even mentioned the Park Theatre in a song.

Unfortunately, it became a place for pornography in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. Everything from peep shows to lingerie was sold there until it recently went belly up. The owners recently donated the building to Wayne Metro for redevelopment.

Lynch-Wilson and her fellow activists want the theater preserved as an entertainment venue that will help bring more foot traffic to downtown and preserve the historic character of the city. Piszker thinks his development is more likely to accomplish that.

The historic theater is now at a critical crossroads. The Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance is asking people who would like to see the theater preserved write letters to the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. The letters will be sent to the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office in Lansing.

Letters of support can be sent to info@waynemetro.org or to:

Louis Piszker
Chief Executive Officer
Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency
2121 Biddle Avenue, Suite 102
Wyandotte, MI  48192

For information on the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance, contact Lynch-Wilson at (313) 598-3137 or email lalynch@wideopenwest.com.

Source: Leslie Lynch-Wilson, president of the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance and Louis Piszker, CEO of
Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency
Writer: Jon Zemke
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