After being closed for more than 17 years, the historic Metro Theater on the Upper West Side is finally being revived as a movie theater once again.
Owner Albert Bialek told Gothamist that a lease has been signed with "a major entity" and the defunct theater will be turned into a "multi-screen cinema with restaurant facilities and a meeting room/event space."
He added that it will be "more involved and integrated than just a regular cinema," but was reluctant to say more or speak about who the new operator is until more plans are finalized. The number of screens involved is still being determined, and the new cinema is aiming to open sometime in 2023.
Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine confirmed that he has also been in contact with the new owners, because he wanted to convey to skeptical locals that this deal is real.
"I'm quite confident that this really is happening," he told Gothamist. "And I just couldn't be more excited."
Levine, like a lot of Manhattanites, has long been hoping for some sort of revival of the Metro, and has seen many deals come and go over the last decade.
"I have felt a little bit like Charlie Brown with the football again and again, getting my hopes up about projects that seemed to be at the finish line only to see them fail," he said. "And that's why I wanted to speak directly to the company. Until I heard it from them, I wasn't ready to celebrate. But I did speak to the CEO of this business, who himself told me there's no turning back, they have a signed lease. This is beyond where we've ever been before."
The Metro, which has distinctive Art Deco-style architecture and marquee, first opened on Broadway between 99th and 100th streets in 1933. For its first twenty years, it showed first-run films, then switched to arthouse and international films in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and early 1980s, it operated as a porn theater. When Clearview Cinemas took over management, it returned to showing first-run films. The theater ultimately closed in 2005.
Although the exterior was given landmark status in 1989, the interiors were gutted in 2006. In the years since, there have been many failed attempts at opening new businesses in the space. At one point it was slated to become a Planet Fitness; at another time it was supposed to become a retail space. There was talk of converting the space into a home for a nonprofit arts education group. Urban Outfitters considered moving there in the early '10s, but instead opened a store across the street (which is now closed).
Most famously, Alamo Drafthouse announced in 2012 it would be opening up its first five-screen cinema in NYC there. Alamo Drafthouse president Tim League said at the time that they planned to "fully restore the exterior, the façade and the neon and the marquee." However, they announced a year later that they were pulling out of the plans, citing costly construction expenses post-Hurricane Sandy.
In recent years, there have also been several community-level attempts at helping jumpstart the theater. A GoFundMe campaign in 2018 raised over $4,000 to go toward the theater, but ended up returning the money to donors. Then last year, a group called Friends Of Metro Theater formed to try to appeal to then-Mayor Bill de Blasio to help the theater.
West Side Rag reported earlier this month that construction had begun on the interiors of the theater. But Department of Buildings spokesperson Ana Marina Alcantara told Gothamist that the DOB has not issued any work permits for construction there. She added that the agency had conducted an inspection of the site after receiving complaints about interior work: "DOB inspectors will be routed back to the scene to further investigate these reports of unpermitted construction work at the location."
There is a partial stop work order still on the building which was issued in November 2012, around the time when Alamo Drafthouse was supposed to take over, but this does not prevent permits for new jobs from being filed at the location. To that end, a new permit for alteration work was filed earlier this month which Alcantara said was part of a filing that was originally submitted in June 2020, suggesting this project has been in the works for some time. That permit is currently undergoing the review and approval process.
In the years since their deal fell through, Alamo Drafthouse has opened up multiple locations in New York City, including one in Downtown Brooklyn in 2016, Lower Manhattan in 2021, and a forthcoming one on Staten Island. In 2020, they filed for Chapter 11 as they tried to stay afloat in the early months of the pandemic, and were able to emerge from bankruptcy after being sold to Altamont Capital Partners.
Asked whether it was involved in the new venture at the Metro, a spokesperson for Alamo Drafthouse said the company had no comment.