By MARGARET FOSMOE - Like Margaret on Facebook
South Bend Tribune
10:25 PM EDT, September 17, 2012
SOUTH BEND -- The fate of the former Avon Theater, 307-309 S. Michigan St., is in the hands of the South Bend Common Council.
After a lengthy public hearing featuring local residents both in favor and against a proposal to landmark the vacant old movie house to prevent its demolition, the Historic Preservation Commission of South Bend & St. Joseph County on Monday voted 6-0 to send the measure to the city council with a favorable recommendation.
Declaring the old theater a historic landmark would prevent the St. Joseph County Public Library, the building's owner, from demolishing it to use the land for temporary parking. The library board bought the Avon for $135,000 in 2007 with the intention of demolishing it and eventually using the land for an expansion of the Main Library.
A public hearing before the Common Council and a council vote are expected in October.
The commission's vote came after a lively debate about the library expansion plan, continuing loss of downtown historic architecture, and whether taxpayers should be asked to restore a deteriorating old theater building or fund a large new library.
South Bend resident Mik Perry said the old theater should be saved, restored and turned into an art gallery featuring the work of art students from local colleges, with a cafe run by culinary arts students.
Other cities protect and benefit from their historic architecture, but South Bend since the 1960s has been tearing down its old buildings, South Bend resident S.J. Szabo said.
Library director Donald Napoli said it's not economically feasible or fair to ask taxpayers to pay up to $3 million to save the old theater and somehow incorporate it into the design of a future new Main Library. "If the Avon building is declared a historic landmark, that designation will have a serious detrimental effect on the planned Main Library expansion," he said.
"That theater is alive right now. It's just sleeping," said Robert Hohl, a librarian at Saint Mary's College. He spoke in favor of saving the Avon, saying theaters are among the public buildings that people treasure because of the experiences they share there.
Pete Mullen is St. Joseph County auditor and a member of Friends of the Library. With poverty burdening many local workers, it would be ludicrous to require taxpayers to pay to restore a former theater that has no planned use, he said.
"There are too many vacant buildings in South Bend as it is," said Cyd DeNardi Maravolo, who said a large photo should be taken of the Avon's ornate front, but the building should be demolished.
Commission member David Steinhauser questioned whether taxpayers should be asked to pay for a new downtown library, a project that several years ago was estimated would cost $43 million. "I don't know that we have that kind of money," he said.
Staff writer Margaret Fosmoe:
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