Calling large single-screen movie houses “dinosaurs,” the Uptown Theatre’s owner is moving swiftly on plans to convert the historic cinema into a 2,500-person music and events venue, much like his reborn Armory in downtown Minneapolis.
Ned Abdul, whose company Swervo owns the Armory and has remade several other properties in downtown Minneapolis, has taken over the Legeros Building next door to the Uptown and will combine the two buildings into one 10,000-plus-square-foot space for concerts, comedy shows and other live events.
The new Uptown Theatre would resemble St. Paul’s First Avenue-run Palace Theatre in size and concept, with an open floor and seated balcony and capacity for 2,516, according to city permits. Movies would be a minor part of programming.
The developer argues that such a venue will help revitalize the Uptown area, which has been crime-ridden since the COVID pandemic began and was an epicenter for rioting, looting and vandalism following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the June 2021 killing of another Black man, Winston Boogie Smith Jr., by law enforcement officers.
“I love this city, I love Uptown, [and] it makes me sad to see the impact to the city since the pandemic,” Abdul said.
“What is missing in Uptown are people. We are making this re-investment in the neighborhood because I believe this multipurpose venue will be a new destination to help spark the resurgence.”
Originally opened in 1916 as the Lagoon Theater on the corner of Hennepin and Lagoon avenues, the Uptown underwent a $2 million renovation in 2012 and continued showing movies until the pandemic hit in March 2020.
During lockdown, the company that ran it for 43 years, Landmark Theaters, failed to pay $340,000 in rent and agreed to vacate the space last June. Landmark also operates Lagoon Cinema, a five-screen multiplex a block away that reopened last spring.
“[If] mega entertainment groups like Landmark couldn’t make a go of it, you try something else,” said Abdul.
In October, the city approved a permit for the theater’s makeover and reclassification as a live entertainment venue; preservation requirements for its historic facade also have been cleared. Abdul said construction on the two buildings has begun, and he hopes to have the build-out completed by the end of 2022.
News of the theater’s reimagination — first reported by the news site Racket — was met with mixed emotions as many longtime patrons mourned the historic moviehouse but also recognized the need to revitalize the area. Many also wondered if the Twin Cities needs another music and event venue in the 2,500-capacity range.
The new Uptown would be close in size to the Palace, the Orpheum and State theaters in downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota’s Northrop auditorium; and it’s not much bigger than the Fillmore Minneapolis, opened two years ago near Target Field by Live Nation, a frequent partner in concerts at Abdul’s 8,000-capacity Armory.
“Are [concert] tours skipping this market because there’s no availabilities?” one commenter posted to Facebook.
“At least it’s not a Barnes & Noble,” another added of the plan.
One resounding reaction to the plan: Where would 2,500 eventgoers park?
There are only two parking ramps in the area, the 730-space Seven Points (formerly Calhoun Square) garage and 436-stall Mozaic Art Park, and few surface lots. What’s more, city planners are weighing plans to remove about 200 metered parking spaces along Hennepin Avenue in Uptown to make room for dedicated bus and bike lanes. Business owners in the area sent a letter to city leaders last week denouncing the plan.
Uptown real-estate veteran Jeff Herman applauded the makeover of Uptown’s namesake theater, with the caveat that the city add parking options.
“It’s a good plan, if the city doesn’t screw it and all of us up with this terrible parking plan,” said Herman, president of Urban Anthology, which owns three buildings in Uptown, including the home of restaurant mainstay Barbette.
“Obviously, some businesses will benefit more than others from it becoming a concert venue, but I think all the businesses will benefit from the visibility it would add. It’s sad it can’t remain a movie theater, but at least it’s remaining a place of entertainment.”
A representative for Minneapolis City Council Member Aisha Chughtai, who represents the area, said Chughtai is gathering more information on Abdul’s plan and would not comment at this time.
Council Member Lisa Goodman, whose ward abuts Uptown, said, “If it’s well-managed, I think it could be a great asset to the area.” She is hopeful it would be well-run, too, “given the success and know-how this management group has shown at the Armory.”
Paul Pirner, who owns both a home and a business, Hairless Dog Brewery, in Uptown, cited parking concerns but is otherwise in favor of the theater’s conversion.
“Parking is a concern for everything in Uptown, so I don’t think it should ruin this plan,” Pirner said. “I think [it] will bring back some culture to Uptown, and that’s really what’s been missing here for too long — local culture. It’s been looking more like Knollwood shopping mall than what Uptown used to be.”
Abdul himself seemed less concerned about the parking challenges. He cited public transportation options as well as bike routes and access to other businesses’ parking lots.
“We expect our audiences will be frequenting the dozens of bars and restaurants in the neighborhood before and after our shows — all these hospitality establishments offer parking options for their customers,” he said.
Abdul’s $6 million purchase and multimillion-dollar makeover of the long-decaying Armory was a resounding success. Opened just in time for Super Bowl LII in 2018, the Armory now hosts concerts as well as boxing matches and parties.
The remade Uptown won’t be “a one-dimensional room,” he stressed. “We will utilize this historic space to book a variety of events” — E-sports and corporate outings were two examples he cited — “while also making sure we provide some dates on the calendar for community use.”
The developer pledged to appease the theater’s old-faithful crowd, too: “We will look at how the rich history of film in the room can be tapped.”