San Lorenzo Express News

Lorenzo Theater Future Unresolved

MARCH 31, 2006

Five years ago many people in San Lorenzo hoped that a restored Lorenzo Theater would be a "shining beacon" in the middle of a newly developed commercial center replacing the abandoned buildings and vacant lots on Hesperian. Today, while the hope of a restored theater is still bright, the actual prospect may have dimmed.

County officials recently have been meeting with the theater owner, Dr. Dharam Salwan, in an effort to craft an agreement to transfer the theater to the Lorenzo Theater Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1999. The Foundation was established to restore the theater and operate it as a venue for a variety of arts.

The meetings were initiated by county supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, who represents San Lorenzo. According to Lai-Bitker's aide Kevin Dowling, the supervisor wanted "to move things along." Relations between Salwan and the Foundation have been strained since a complicated transfer deal in 2001 went sour. Lai-Bitker and representatives of the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency have met several times with Salwan since last fall.

At this time talks are focused on a two-year option contract to purchase the theater. Within that period the Foundation would have to raise an amount that has not yet been fixed. The Redevelopment Agency requested that the Foundation prepare a business plan for operating a restored theater. The Foundation turned over a plan to the agency in February.

The Foundation has hoped that the purchase price of the theater would be paid out of Eden Redevelopment District funds. However, Eileen Dalton of the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency says that is unlikely because redevelopment dollars in San Lorenzo are earmarked almost entirely for development of housing and businesses on the "Village Square" property owned by the Bohannon Organization.

The Village Square project, the site of the former Mervyn's store, has been on hold waiting for a specific development plan from the prospective developer, Civic Partners. Civic Partners has released several conceptual plans in the past few years, none of which have incorporated a restored, functioning theater. Any plans for the theater would have to figure out where to park several hundred cars during a theater event. (For the latest update on the Civic Partners project, see Planning Issues Issues in the Eden Unincorporated Area.)

In October 2005 the Foundation made a pitch to the San Lorenzo Redevelopment Area Citizen Advisory Committee for support. The committee requested that the Foundation raise more money before seeking redevelopment funds.

At the time the Foundation had raised $17,000 toward purchase and restoration of the theater. The cost of restoring the theater has been estimated between eight and 12 million dollars. The purchase price in an option contract in 2003 was $459,000.

In 2000 a church wanted to buy the theater and convert it to a church and "community center." The Foundation fiercely opposed the proposal. Salwan purchased the building in December immediately after the church withdrew its bid. In 2003 several individuals and organizations expressed interest in purchasing the theater. Among these was the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs Association, which lobbied heavily for support from the county supervisors and San Lorenzo community. The Foundation enthusiastically support the Association's proposal.

No doubt because it saw the political handwriting on the wall, the agency committed up to $25,000 to study the cost of rehabilitating the theater. In June 2003 the agency concluded a purchase contract with Salwan, giving it 210 days to study the cost of rehabilitation and accept proposals from potential theater operators. However, the agency quickly learned that the cost was far beyond any amount it was prepared to spend. It terminated the cost study and did not request proposals from potential operators. Subsequently, the Deputy Sheriffs Association gave up on the idea of taking over the theater.