Giving new meaning to the old saying, “If you can’t beat ’em join, ’em,” Mayor Steven Fulop has announced that the city will drop its lawsuit against the Friends of the Loews Theater and will work with the not-for-profit to make improvements and renovations to the historic facility.
Some of these projects will start, the city said, within the next few months.
“We made a commitment to rebuilding our relationship with the Friends of the Loews so we can have a productive partnership and reach our common goal of restoring the theater to a vibrant community space,” said Fulop. “Over the past several months, we have been meeting with the Friends of the Loews and discussing ways we can collaborate on some of the more immediate renovations and work toward future plans. While our dialogues have been positive and constructive, we saw dismissing the lawsuit as the right thing to do as we work together in good faith on the theater’s future.”
Years of dispute
This resolution comes after several years of legal wrangling, with the city attempting to take control of the development of the historic theater in Journal Square.
The city has since also proposed a new arts district in the area around the Loew’s theater and Journal Square.
In 2014, the city attempted to turn the theater into a performing arts center, and went so far as to award contracts for theater operations and restoration.
But the Friends of the Loews took the matter to court and got a ruling that the city could not violate a contract it had entered into with the Friends more than a decade ago. Their lease agreement with the city doesn’t expire until 2021.
In 2015, the city asked the freeholders to redirect a $300,000 grant that had been awarded by the county for work at Loews. Most of these funds were to be redirected to help fund the construction of the $35 million Berry Lane Park project.
But a court ruling earlier this year said the city must return this money to the Friends.
The city appealed the decision, but apparently was advised that the court would rule in favor of the Friends if it did.
Also a contributing fact was a $2 million donation to the theater as part of the Journal Squared development nearby in Journal Square. The city hoped to redirect these funds, but has learned that it was legally obligated to dedicate the money to the theater.
The city’s decision paves the way for the long overdue restoration of the theater that began in the 1990s when the Friends originally began to rehabilitate the historic theater.
Money for upgrades was taken by the state
The city took possession of the theater in 1993 after the Friends and others halted efforts to demolish it to construct an office building.
While the Friends leased the property with the intention of restoring the historic theater for public use, the lease filed in 2004 required that code violations be addressed before any other work.
According to the Friends, the city originally pledged funds to help pay to bring the building up to code, but over time failed to live up to its promise. In 2009, the city and the Friends came to agreement that the city would use unexpended funds from its Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) fund to meet this obligation.
UEZ money was also supposed to be used to hire a consultant to help with booking performances.
In 2009, the Friends agreed to allow the city to oversee the construction work to bring up the facility to code. This included installing sprinklers, and resolving other fire safety and health-related issues. The city had about five projects planned, including work on the front doors that the City Council voted to authorize.
Everything came to a half when newly-elected Gov. Christopher Christie took the UEZ funds from urban areas to help balance the state budget, including about $11 million from Jersey City.
According to the city, in 2014, the Fulop administration retained AEG Live following a bid process to renovate and manage the Loews Theatre after previously notifying the Friends of the Loews that their lease with the city was invalid.
The Friends of the Loews sued and the city filed a countersuit alleging a breached lease. While the court has ruled via summary judgment that the Friends of the Loews have a valid lease, they also ruled that the city could pursue its countersuit for breach of lease at trial. That is the suit the city is dismissing as the administration and the Friends of the Loews work together on the future of the theater.
City to go out to bid shortly
Over the next few weeks, the administration expects to go out to bid and then begin work on projects that will help improve the safety and functionality of the theater, such as the installation of emergency lighting, smoke detection, and standpipe systems utilizing Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund grant dollars.
Repairs to a cracked structural wall on the side addition of the theater will also begin over the summer and once complete will allow the scaffolding near the alleyway to be removed. This work will be funded by capital dollars from the city.
In a statement, the Friends of the Loew’s said the group has been working with Jersey City since the beginning of this year, at Mayor Fulop’s request, to build a cooperative relationship.
So for this reason the Friends was very surprised when the city did not drop its remaining claims after the Appellate Division confirmed early this spring that the trial judge correctly held in 2015 the Friends’ lease of the Loew’s is valid.
“The move by the city now to drop this counter-suit is welcome, and is due in part to the fact that the Friends was able to show in its most recent court filing that the city’s claims were not supported by the record,” the statement said. “But the Friends expects that the city’s action now is also based on the pledge Mayor Fulop made at the beginning of the year to become a good partner to Friends of the Loew’s.
“This kind of good-faith, supportive attitude by the city toward the Friends is critical to faster progress in more restoration and increased programming at the Loew’s. And now that this most recent issue is behind us, the Friends looks forward to continuing the talks and planning with the City that began early this year which will, hopefully, lead to long-term cooperation and agreement regarding the Loew’s by this fall.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com