Lifestyle, News, Politics

Columbia City Cinema at Stand-Off With City Over Sprinklers; Both Sides Speak Here

The on-going saga of the City of Seattle vs. Columbia City Cinema (RVP sponsor) has reached somewhat of a stalemate with the City insisting that the historic building housing the cinema be brought up to code with a new sprinkler system, and Cinema owner Paul Doyle desperate for an extension so he can raise the $100,000 he says is necessary to do so.

This morning, the Rainier Valley Post received a request from the Mayor’s office to publish the following update to the community from Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith (Paul Doyle’s response follows below):

Several years ago I was approached by Paul Doyle, who was seeking help to establish a small first run movie theater in my neighborhood. I had been very active in helping Columbia City reestablish itself, so naturally I thought it would be great to have movies close to home. (Full disclosure: my wife and I helped to find investors, and a few are personal friends.)

The Cinema has been a real favorite in the South End, and it has survived despite the lousy economy. About a year ago, I learned that the cinema had grown from a one screen operation into a three screen operation without obtaining the proper permits or making the required updates for public safety as required by the Seattle Fire and Building Codes. As with any business, a change in use of all or a portion of a building may trigger additional safety requirements depending on the extent and nature of the change. In this case, when the Cinema increased their capacity and expanded to three screens, they were required by the fire code to install sprinklers. But this vital safety improvement was never done.

The City’s Department of Planning and Development, as well as the Seattle Fire Department, set up a plan that the owner/operator could follow to keep the Cinema open. We granted the Cinema two temporary use permits, and worked with Paul Doyle to allow the Cinema to stay open as a three screen movie house while he worked on getting the necessary permits to bring the cinema up to code. Unfortunately, he did not follow up with the City to get those permits.

Some have asked why an old building in a historic neighborhood cannot just be exempted from public safety and code requirements. The building, an old Masonic hall, is a contributing historic structure in the Columbia City Landmark District; however, that designation does not exempt the building from public safety requirements and does not prohibit the alteration of the interior to install sprinklers. We have all heard about tragedies in large buildings that lacked adequate fire protection, and we cannot close our eyes to these important public safety concerns.

I want the Columbia City Cinema to remain a vital part of our great neighborhood, and so does the City. We have worked with owner Paul Doyle to try to achieve that goal. We all share our concern for public safety and the love of movies shown close to home, and hope that he will work with us to bring the cinema up to code.

Response from Paul Doyle:

It’s unfortunate the city is attempting to absolve itself from responsibility or leadership in the matter of the Cinema, by attempting to discredit me. The [above] letter blindsided me and went out to the public while I thought I was in negotiation with the City for an extension for enough time to finance the sprinklers. The letter is the usual unthinking, self-serving city response and contains several inaccuracies.

First of all, contrary to what the letter says, I have been working with  the city and have been waiting nearly a month now for a response to my question of where it says the city can totally disregard the section of the code that says in an historic building the mandated fire protection provisions SHALL NOT BE REQUIRED.

Assuming the failure of that reasonable approach, I am also waiting for an answer to the request for enough time to finance the sprinklers.

Contrary to what the letter says, the building is up to code and all  permits have been applied for and approved. The cinema cannot get a permanant occupancy permit however until the fire sprinklers are installed.

It is true we’ve been given two temporary occupancy permits, one for six months and one for 30 days. It was impossible to make much progress toward the sprinklers during that time because four of those months the City had the upstairs entirely closed, costing us to date about $80,000, and we had our hands full just staying open.

Furthermore, the City did not even review and approve our plans until five months into the extension. The fire department has said on at least two occasions, that the problem isn’t an issue of safety, that it’s simply an issue of what the code says we must do and they are going to make us  install sprinklers because they can.

Our response is “Fine, we’ll install sprinklers, but since you nearly put us out of business by your arbitrary, unprecedented and unecessary closure, you could at least give us enough time to raise the money, especially since you’re the reason we don’t have it. The City conveniently overlooks the facts of the case in favor of business as usual.

That said, we are happy to continue working with the city to install the sprinklers they want so badly, but continue to ask for enough time to raise the approximately $100,000 they cost.

It is a failure of leadership when the city forces a worthwhile institution out of business. They could easily grant us an extension and defuse the whole thing.

What do you think? Should Columbia City Cinema be granted an extension so it can raise the funds required for a new sprinkler system?


34 comments on “Columbia City Cinema at Stand-Off With City Over Sprinklers; Both Sides Speak Here

  1. Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the building owner to bring it up to code?

  2. Nope, on most commercial leases the tenant is responsible for just about everything on the building. They are usually required to leave the building in the same or better condition than they found it.

  3. Hi Paul,
    I hope the theater stays alive but you might want to reread the code – particularly the end of the paragraph.

    In Section 102.6 Historic Buildings (page 2)
    of the 2009 Seattle Fire Code it states

    “The provisions of this code relating to the construction, alteration, repair, enlargement, restoration, relocation or moving of buildings or structures shall not be mandatory for existing buildings or structures identified and classified by the state or local jurisdiction as historic buildings when such buildings or structures do not constitute a distinct hazard to life or property. Fire protection is designated historic buildings and structures shall be provided in accordance with an approved fire protection plan.”

    Bottom line – you can have a large crowd in your building at times, you need to protect them. No one wants a catastrophe in Columbia City. Suggestion – become a nonprofit and get city money.

    Tom T.

  4. Oh man here we go again. Thanks for spelling it out Tom T. This guy just does not get the point.

  5. I love this cinema — it’s so close to home and beautiful. But I am concerned whenever someone doesn’t think the law applies to them. I am pregnant and it worries me to see a movie upstairs in that building. I was looking forward to the cry baby movies, but again, an out-of-compliance building like this spells danger to me. Regulations like the Fire Code are there to protect people. They should be complied with.

  6. I value the cinema also, but urge Paul to accept that the safety/fire codes apply to the building and move on to developing a substainable business model. The increase in ticket prices was long overdue.

  7. I like the non-profit idea as well. I may have even suggested it last time Mr. Doyle demonstrated his understanding of something business related.

  8. Love the cinema. Have come to the cry baby Tuesdays several times. I very much want them to stay in business. I value them as an alternative to the mega-plex theatres. This said, there is no question in my mind that the sprinklers are needed – but asking for time to raise the funds would seem reasonable. It would be great if the city became a partner in this rather than adversarial. If we want to keep the cinema in Columbia City, then help is needed, and the city is capable. What would it take? I’m not suggesting a handout, nor is the owner (I think), but I’m sure there must be some way to work something out so the sprinklers go in without reaming the guy. Even a low cost loan? Possible? Or maybe the city pays and then a surcharge is added to ticket price? I’d be willing to pay an extra 50 cents a ticket for this.

  9. Why not contact the Office of Economic Development, Deputy Mayor Darryl, Sally Clark, and Bruce Harrell —they live here— and suggest the city create a grant program, low-interest loan program, or tax credit for businesses located in low-income communities facing this type of obstacle? After all, the city (taxpayers) are subsidizing the construction of most every apartment under construction in the city with the Multi-family Tax Exempt Program. Since taxpayers are giving breaks to wealthy developers —who don’t need the money— why don’t the clever minds in city government create a program that benefits businesses in a community where businesses struggle? (No, I’m not talking about funneling more money through HomeSight or SEED so they can skim off the top.) We need a tax credit or grant mechanism or loan fund available to local businesses so that they can keep their doors open. Simple.

    If city leaders can steer millions of tax dollars from the “Bridging the Gap” road monies to Paul Allen at South Lake Union, surely they can solve the minor problem of the Columbia Cinema?

  10. Can someone again please explain to me why he needs $100,000? I know sprinklers are not cheap but that’s a whole lotta bread.


  12. Strange, creepy stuff, reminds me of the movie, The Towering Inferno.

    When I go into a theatre, the first thing I see are the fire exit doors. If there are no adequate fire exits in a multi-story theatre, a sprinkler system would be required, no excuses or the fire dept. shuts down the joint citing public safety.

    A private business being subsidzed by taxpayers? Good luck with that.

  13. This guy is a piece of work. I know people love having a neighborhood theater, but a neighborhood only gets a theater if the owner can make a successful, legitimate business out of it. We’ve been hearing the owner play his woe-is-me violin for too long now. He is taken advantage of well-meaning neighbors with his interminable schemes to “save” the business. Enough already. Shut it down and give it over to someone who can make a business of it. I’d love if it were to remain a theater, but that depends on someone with some chops stepping up and creating a business.

  14. Could someone, anyone, please PLEASE take over the Columbia City Cinema from Paul Doyle? Someone with a business plan and a communication style other than chronic indignation. The victim mentality has worked for Paul so far, but if there are actual victims, of …oh, a FIRE, for instance, I doubt it will hold up.

  15. I too am a business owner. Mr. Doyle found the money for additional projectors, screens and seating, but thought that people should be willing to risk a fire while he continues to “raise the money” for safety equipment. I think the safety of his customers should be more important than increasing his profits by showing more films. If Mr. Doyle cannot offer services in compliance with the rules that cover ALL movie theaters, I suggest he sell the operation to someone who can.

  16. @Stakeholder
    The WA State constitution (and thus Seattle) is very explicit about “no lending of credit” to private businesses and I believe it is this concept that hamstrings municipalities from developing a product like this to private enterprises. I have heard it was conceived of to keep legislators from funneling money to their favorite big biz leaders in the State. This is why the nonprofit concept is a good one – this would qualify him for already established products out there for nonprofits and the like. Plus, it fits more with the “constant fund raising” model that the Cinema has developed. I don’t feel very good about “donating” to for-profit entities, no matter how great a community asset. If you are for-profit, then you need to develop a business plan that ensures your long-term livelihood, including doing necessary health and safety upgrades to your space. This should not include regular fund raising. If you have to do this, you should become a non-profit so that I know you aren’t taking a salary based on my donation.

  17. PSO –

    what do you mean put the place out of our misery? This is a great place. The business is in need of some help, and maybe the guy is not approaching it the right way, but I am convinced we need places like this, if for no other reason than to have an alternative to the mega-plex corporate theatres.

  18. Also, one thing that’s been implicit in this debate but not straight-up stated is that Columbia City Cinema is a business unique to Columbia City, with that mix of homegrown authenticity and pretension that the neighborhood has grown into quite comfortably. It provides accessible, affordable entertainment and the building, as we all know, is historic, etc.
    To see the people of Columbia City (and probably Mt. Baker and Hillman City and Brighton, to various extents) rally and save this spot would be a testament to neighborhood pride. Plus, one could probably guarantee that whatever went in to replace it would either be more niche (bar, boutique, fancy restaurant) or more generic (chain store.) I think CCC is what the area needs.

  19. The meta-story here is the ongoing comedy of the owner.

    On what basis does he regard himself as competent businessman and manager? Is it possible his skills lie elsewhere?

    “an out-of-compliance building like this spells danger to me.”
    “When I go into a theatre, the first thing I see are the fire exit doors.”

  20. So somebody needs to write a comedy play about a struggling theater that needs to incorporate a new sprinkler system. This play will help raise money for the sprinklers.

    Elements to incorporate into the script:

    Bowler hats
    A school class that needs an aquarium

  21. Too many laws. Too much government intrusion. We don’t need a nanny government to protect us from every little thing because we are thinking human beings who can take care of themselves.

    City Council: Save our tax dollars and leave this business alone!

  22. We have people in our community who will bend over backward to protect the right of illegal gambling dens up and down Rainier Ave., because they wish to preserve “culture.” These people disgust me. They will attack Mr. Doyle and protect the ILLEGAL. They are hypocrits.

  23. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how much money it takes to operate a theater, or any business for that matter. Folks, this is an impoverished community. Even in Seattle’s middle-class neighborhoods you won’t find any small theaters. All the small theaters are gone. There’s no money in small theaters. If it was profitable you’d see small theaters all over the city. Instead, you see gigantic multi-plex theaters at the malls.

    Let’s face facts here. Target, Kinko’s, Trader Joe’s, and other chain stores have refused to locate here because we don’t have enough middle-income residents. In other words, they can’t afford to keep their doors open. If the Columbia City Cinema closes what business will fill the large space? Another restaurant or a social services agency more likely.

    A couple of years ago, when gang-activity erupted, at least eight youth were shot dead on the streets of the Rainier Valley. We need this theater as a healthy outlet for local kids. Let’s stop all the negativity and personal attacks on Paul Doyle and see if we can throw support behind the guy. Some pressure on the city might result in a workable solution. Or, continue the campaign of attacking Doyle and the struggling theater until he closes and leaves the community. Then, we’ll have ZERO outlets for our youth which will result in more dead teenagers. You choose.

  24. The Theater is a gem, I love it, my kids love it and we would all hate to lose it. I admire the owner for taking the risks to make this neighborhood resource a reality. I hope Paul is able to do what it takes to keep the place going, in the meantime I will show my support by enjoying as many films as I can at the theater. Good luck Paul, we are rooting for you!

  25. @Stakeholder

    I totally agree with everything you said. There are way too many abandoned buildings and not enough choices for residents.

    On the other hand, as much as I want to have local business, they need to keep up their end of the bargain. Get your business in order. Before he opened doors he should have made sure everything was up to code and ready to go. If the sprinklers decide whether or not your business stays open then the sprinklers need to be the first thing installed.

    I can understand times are tough and everyone is trying to eat but let’s keep it 100, Mr. Doyle needs to stop pointing the finger.

  26. I understand that a lot of people want to see a “real business-person(s)” take over in Mr. Doyle’s place. I have often thought myself that in the game of Darwinian economics, Mr. Doyle is a dodo bird.

    All that said as far as I can tell watching him flounder, there is not a line of “real business people” chomping at the bit to have their chance at this business. I’m pretty sure if he received a serious purchase offer he’d probably consider it. That’s because “real business people” do their research, write business plans and calculate business worthiness…and typically their income models do not include handouts from well intentioned neighbors.

    Not to take a swipe at him for that. Many a person has done some good and had success with a “labor or love” born out of nothing more than some elbow grease, inventiveness and a dream. sniff** Ya, nice moment over. That ain’t happenin’ here.

    To tell you the truth, the most profitable “real” business model for this location would probably be something in the category of vice: gambling, strip club, gun shop etc. Given that these are not probably permissible there, the next most likely sign to go up is: VACANT.

    Does Mr. Doyle “deserve” special treatment any more than any other CC business person who’s livelihood and dreams have been lost in this economy? No. But perhaps the community and the institution, do. The NP idea is a good one, but he is unlikely to have the wherewithal to pull that together at this point.

    I think the City should show Mr. Doyle the “leadership” he so desperately needs and has asked for. They need to present a non-profit plan, take it or leave it. If Mr. Doyle is not interested, let him turn it over to someone who will run it as such. Enough of this. What will he do next? Sell shares of air?! Farts for a buck. (DOH- but he’ll forget to calculate the cost of the beans!!!) I realize that some City attorney will have to spend time ($) to construct this for him, but hell…that time and $ will be squandered quickly enough in this silly back and forth.

  27. “Too many laws. Too much government intrusion. We don’t need a nanny government to protect us from every little thing because we are thinking human beings who can take care of themselves.”

    Balance, Do you mean, “ourselves” or do you not think that you are a member of those “thinking human beings” you are referring to. I, for one, do not trust mankind to always make the right decision. Deregulation of businesses has put us in a whole lotta trouble. And history has shown that leaving the public’s safety to businesses without standards and laws can have horrendous consequences.

    As much as I love having the theater in Columbia City (can’t wait to bring our new arrival to the Tuesday afternoon Cry Baby Cinema!), it doesn’t appear to be run well. Period. I’d rather our public funds be spent on education than subsidize our community’s cinema house.

  28. @MarkB, Thanks. It’s kinda a big deal, although I realize that a family with two mommies in south Seattle isn’t unique after all.

    BTW, sometimes I get the impression that I can see your house from my house. It may be some sort of Palin Syndrome.

  29. @Whitney
    “@MarkB, Thanks. It’s kinda a big deal, although I realize that a family with two mommies in south Seattle isn’t unique after all.

    BTW, sometimes I get the impression that I can see your house from my house. ”

    Wierd, you didn’t strike me as a stalker. J/K
    Actually I live in the Lakewood / Seward Park area but I work right near you.
    There are lots of same sex couples with children pretty much everywhere (except Iran)

    Again, Congratulations

  30. So, now what? Is the cinema really gone?
    I never cared for Paul’s whining; did like his humor; absolutely loved having the Cinema; think the city should have given him the extension through the summer that he was talking about.
    I don’t forget — can still feel — what that whole section of C City was like all those years before the Cinema: derelict, stagnant, boring. With the Cinema it came alive. Wish someone would have a similar creative and beneficial instinct for that now vacant plaza across the street. (NO, we don’t need a six story ugly travesty like the ones north of us on Rainier. How about skating rinks, one indoor one outdoor, with a nice big fountain, sculptures, and a memorable set of pergolas outside creating an open, but covered from the rain, walking/gathering/performance space — wouldn’t that give us a fantastic heart of C City center of gravity and civic life… a real plaza!)
    Anyway, that big old Masonic building I used to wonder about for years got made into something that brought life, warmth, color, and transformation to that section of the neighborhood. Good on Mr. Doyle for having had the very bright idea and the nerve to try it out.
    Now to the Powers That Be: Forget that the guy gets on your nerves. You know you can help, so keep helping already. No stopping, no choking, no blocking. This is for the neighborhood. Give him the extension. Just do it.
    That is, if it’s not too late already. If it is, how all around stupid.

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