Oak Bluffs bedeviled by theater eyesores

Victims of time, the elements and technology, the Strand and Island theaters continue to deteriorate.

On Thursday, painters were busy sprucing up the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs. — Photo by Steve Myrick

As summer rolls in, two anchor buildings in downtown Oak Bluffs, the Strand Theatre on Oak Bluffs Avenue and the Island theater on Circuit Avenue, remain in disrepair, their marquees that once heralded summer blockbusters now blank.

The Strand houses a bike and moped business. The Island is vacant. Representatives of the Hall family, owners of both buildings, said they are doing their best to address structural and cosmetic issues with both buildings but continue to encounter unforeseen problems.

For Oak Bluffs town leaders it all seems like a rerun. At the conclusion of the May 27 meeting of the selectmen, selectman Walter Vail commented on the continued inaction of Halls to address the situation.

“I don’t know of anyone in town who is not frustrated by the condition of these buildings and how long they’ve been in such a sad state,” Mr. Vail said. “I’m fed up; we’re all fed up. The selectmen have been looking at all kinds of options, but it doesn’t look like anything is going to happen soon. I’m open to any ideas anybody has.”

Paint job

An email exchange earlier in the month and obtained by The Times through a public records request provides a glimpse into the source of Mr. Vail’s frustration.

In an email dated May 20, Mr. Vail wrote to Ben Hall Jr., co-owner of the theaters and the family attorney, “I have not seen any work being done on the Strand theater, as you told me in March would happen this month.  Am I rushing things?”

Addressing the Island theater, Mr. Vail wrote, “It is in such awful condition that it ought to come down and be replaced by a building which could be something you (and Oak Bluffs) could be proud of and even turn a profit!”

Mr. Vail concluded, “We are getting good feedback on how everything on Circuit Ave. is being dressed up, and I am hoping you can also give me an update on your plans for the Island theater. It still looks as awful as it has for years!”
Ben Hall responded to Mr. Vail on May 21. He pointed his finger at tenants of the Strand who he said are responsible for painting and said repairs to the Island theater had been delayed due to various problems with contractors, weather delays, and a town bylaw that prohibits outdoor construction in the B-1 district during the summer.

“Nobody likes to hear excuses, and I am now more disappointed and angry than you are about these matters,” he wrote. “The tenants at the Strand promised me back in March they would have the painting at the Strand undertaken, presumably before Memorial Day weekend.”

Brian Hall, co-owner of the theaters, said in a recent conversation with The Times that the Strand is leased to a moped group managed by Jason Leone. “They’re responsible for maintenance. It’s in the lease that they signed. They keep coming to us saying we want to do this and that, we say ‘Fine, bring us a proposal.’ We have yet to see any proposal from them.”

Town administrator Robert Whritenour told The Times that he had received assurances from Mr. Leone that exterior painting and repair of the sign would take place this week and next. On Wednesday, a painter was busy applying a coat of white paint to the side of the building.

Roof work
The Island Theater’s most recent use as a movie theater was in August 2012, when the Sony Corporation leased the auditorium for a private screening and the Island premiere of the movie “Sparkle.” Almost 200 invited guests attended, including producer Debra Martin Chase, President Barack Obama’s advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Winter storm damage that year to the roof and associated water issues created a long punch list of needed repairs.

“The first thing we have to do is get the roof finished,” Brian Hall told The Times. “We started work on the truss a few days ago. That shouldn’t take that long. How fast the rest goes is out of my control.”

Chris Lowe is the contractor in charge of truss and roof repair, according to Mr. Hall.

Brian Hall said Oak Bluffs building inspector James Dunn has indicated they could possibly get an extension on the summer outdoor construction moratorium for the B-1 district, which began June 1. “If we have to the end of June, we can make a boatload of progress,” he said. “We can at least get the roof waterproofed, so the tarps would be gone. We’ll go as far as we can with the time we have.”

Brian Hall estimates the repairs to make the Island “leasable” will be in the neighborhood of $100,000.

Asked if the financial liability and the public relations liability that the theaters have become for the Hall family were inducement to put the the buildings on the market, he replied, “We have a lot of people ask ‘would you consider selling?’ Make an offer, we’ll listen. But we never hear a solid offer. I don’t expect a premium, but I don’t expect a low ball either.”

No tear down

In his May 21 email to selectman Vail, Ben Hall Jr. cited contractor issues as the major cause of delays on the restoration of the Island. “We are unable to count on our original contractor to complete the truss repairs and roofing work at the Island for which we finally got specifications and the go-ahead in late March, early April. As you know, we had been stalled until then because we had not found an engineer who could find a solution to the issues seen by others that suggested the building be torn down.”

John Lolley, a civil and structural engineering consultant with 41 years of experience, is the engineer that recommended demolition. Mr. Lolley was engaged by the Halls to make recommendations on repairing a rotted truss last summer.
“In my opinion, that building was never sound to begin with,” Mr. Lolley said in an interview with the Times. “At the time it was built, people knew more about masonry probably than they do now. I was suprised how the masonry wasn’t up to the standards and empirical rules that were used at that time. They built the columns and infilled the walls, which means the walls and columns are not connected.”
Mr. Lolley said the heavy wind load coming off Nantucket Sound and 99 years of Island weather have taken a heavy toll on the structure. “I think it’s dangerous enough that it if it’s not demolished, it should be addressed structurally in a significant way,” Mr. Lolley said. “Just because they inherited problems with the building doesn’t mean they’re not responsible. Something should be done. I’m surprised more hasn’t been done by the building inspector.”

Brian Hall disagrees with that assessment. “His [Mr. Lolley’s] solutions were over the top elaborate,” Mr. Hall said. “The building is not unsafe. It’s not going to be occupiable, but it’s not going to fall over either.”

Mr. Hall said a second engineers report, completed over the winter by Reid Silva of Vineyard Land Surveying and Engineering, provided the way forward.

Mr. Silva said that he made no formal design for the repair of the walls. “I had more to do with the truss repair than evaluating the building,” he said in a phone call with the Times. “There are plenty of items that need to be addressed.”

Building push

In a conversation with the Times on June 6, Oak Bluffs building inspector James Dunn said he spoke with Brian Hall last week. “I told him he had to get moving,” Mr. Dunn said. “If he doesn’t, I’m going to declare it unsafe and have it torn down.” Mr. Dunn indicated that he could use Mr. Lolley’s engineering report to justify the demolition.

Mr. Dunn agreed to extend the June 1 downtown building moratorium until the end of June so roof repairs could be completed. Mr. Dunn’s definition of completed means weatherproofed and shingled, not just weatherproofed, as Mr. Hall indicated in his conversation with the Times. “There’s no reason the entire job couldn’t be done in three or four days with a professional crew,” he said. “You just have to spend the money.”

Even though he is retiring at the end of the month, Mr. Dunn said he has a personal interest in seeing the situation resolved. “I love this town,” he said. “I live in this town; I want to be involved.”

An asset

In a lengthy email to The Times, Ben Hall Jr. described the history of repair projects on both theaters and the challenge faced by small movie theater operators. He defended his family’s stewardship of both buildings, and he said his family had been repeatedly victimized by news coverage.

“It’s easy to throw stones at the owners of such large places,” Mr. Hall said. “These buildings are significant economic assets and it is ridiculous to even suggest that the maintenance and repair of such buildings are being ignored by the owners.”

Mr. Hall said his family had invested close to $1 million in the past decade in the Strand but the film exhibition business is no longer viable.

As for the Island Theater, Mr. Hall said, the severe wind storms of fall and winter 2012 running on through March of 2013 damaged the roof which then damaged the interior walls of the building. Once repair work could begin, he said, engineers were brought in who questioned the structural integrity of the entire building. “As you can understand, this was a real shock,” he said.

Mr. Hall said that as much as townspeople complain, his family is certain town leaders would not permit the building to be torn down without a viable plan for its replacement.

This spring, Mr. Hall said, his family was able to retain an expert who designed “an elegant, but detailed method to knit the building together. This report was provided to the authorities who approved of the concept, and the contractor was asked to re-mobilize to undertake the needed, but more extensive, work.”

Mr. Hall said work was halted due to a town bylaw prohibiting work in the business district during the summer months. The space is unlikely to be operated as a movie theater in the future, he said. “Like other properties in the business district, the Island Theater building continues to be on the market for a long term lease to permit the prospective tenant to amortize whatever investment they may wish to make on the property with uses that would create an additional diversity of services to the residents and visitors to Oak Bluffs,” he said.