By Margie M. Palmer | SDUN Reporter
The Birch North Park Theatre has finally come under new ownership, and community members are welcoming this changing of the guard with open arms.
The historic building, which has been on the market since early 2011, has been purchased by West Coast Tavern owners David Cohen, Bobby Jones and the Verant Group. Verant Group owns a total of seven restaurants throughout the city including North Park-based True North and the increasingly popular Uptown Tavern in Hillcrest.
The theatre’s now-previous owner Lyric Opera took overthe property in 2006 when they purchased it from the City of San Diego for $12.5 million. Approximately 70 percent of the sale was subsidized through redevelopment funds, with the performance group having agreed to pay off the remaining $4 million mortgage.
Unfortunately, lagging ticket sales and rough economic conditions did not fare well for Lyric Opera, which was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2011. Last year, Cohen and his partners purchased their mortgage and last month, a U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge approved the transfer of the 32,000 square-foot theatre to the new owners.
Cohen said they officially took ownership last week.
“We’ve actually been looking at the space for the past four years, and now the timing just worked out,” he said. “The feedback has been very positive and people seem to be excited. People have already started to ask me when we’re going to start doing more shows.”
Cohen said that since West Coast Tavern opened in the theatre’s lobby, he’s seen a steady decline in bookings.
“Lyric Opera was understaffed and wasn’t able to capitalize on the space. It didn’t have the in-house resources to book and manage those events,” he said. “It was running at the capacity it could handle with the number of people they had on staff.”
He, along with North Park Main Street Executive Director Angela Landsberg, agrees that when the theater doesn’t have events, all surrounding businesses suffer.
Landsberg said that while the previous director of the Birch Theatre performed excellently under the difficult circumstances, running a theater also tasked with the instability of a bankruptcy is a challenge.
“The limited financial resources prevented them from fully utilizing the magnificent venue to its greatest potential, which in turn impacted the entire district’s ability to capitalize on this one of a kind San Diego icon,” Landsberg said. “The North Park Theatre was the catalyst for the revitalization of this community over a decade ago. It will now have the leadership and management to carry forward its legacy.”
Since North Park Main Street promotes development that supports arts, culture and entertainment while preserving the historical integrity of the community, Landsberg feels Cohen’s business model fits perfectly with their mission.
This model includes expanding the 731-seat venue to its original 1,200-seat configuration. From there, the space will host a mix of concerts and movies with full food and alcohol service. Cohen describes the vision as the “Casbah meets Cineopolis”.
The remodel will start in the beginning of the year, he said, and they plan to stay true to the original building. The calendar will be full of bookings starting in June of 2014 and will include nationally touring acts.
“I think it’s really going to bring a renaissance again to North Park,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of talk about how it revitalized the neighborhood when it reopened in 2006. This will be the second revitalization and will bring even more people to the community.”
Landsberg said the local business community is welcoming the change with open arms.
“[David Cohen and the Verant Group] have a vision for creating a local destination as well as a theater that can bring people together from all over the region to this thriving commercial district,” she said. “I hope to see lines out the door at the theater and those same people enjoying all of the shops, eateries and galleries that North Park has to offer.”