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?