The historic Ardmore cinema house hasn’t shown movies in years. Since the theater closed nearly two decades ago, the structure has housed a gym and, currently, an outdoor furniture store, which advertises in bold letters on the marquee that once listed the week’s movie showings.
Soon, however, the building may become home to more than a dozen condominium owners.
In the latest proposal received by Lower Merion, developers want to demolish the back portion of the building and construct a seven-story, 18-unit complex, said Christopher Leswing, director of the township building and planning department.
On the Lancaster Avenue side, he added, they proposed keeping the facade and outfitting the marquee with a retro design reflecting its 1920s roots.
“That’s been a very underutilized site,” Leswing said. “It’s a big old theater site. ... It wasn’t meant to be a retail space.”
The proposal comes amid much debate over development in the small Main Line town less than 10 miles from Center City. In recent years, as the township has been preparing to enact a new zoning code, Ardmore has seen a boom in residential and retail construction, from the downtown strip along Lancaster Avenue to the shopping district of nearby Suburban Square, and more projects are in the works.
If approved, the condos would be built in the literal shadow of One Ardmore, a 110-unit luxury apartment building that opened in April after 11 years of delays, pushback, and legal battles.
Other residential projects winding their way through the township approvals process include the 77-unit Cricket Flats; a Lancaster Avenue retail-and-residential complex with 257 apartments; and another mixed-use building in Suburban Square that would bring 158 additional units.
It’s not abnormal to see an uptick in development proposals when a town is about to change its zoning code, Leswing said. In Lower Merion, the new code could be adopted as early as mid-September. While many aspects of the current code will remain, buildings will no longer be permitted to exceed four stories in height in the commercial district, he said.
Some residents — including several who spoke at a historical board meeting last month — have said they’re concerned about overdevelopment and worried that Ardmore will lose its quaint, community feel as more mid-rise buildings are constructed.
Jean LaVassaur, 68, a retired social worker, said she has watched the changing skyline through her apartment window. When she first heard about the theater proposal last month, she said, her first thought was, “Oh my God, not another one.”
LaVassaur, who is involved with the Ardmore Progressive Civic Association, said she views the theater plan as “another concrete, flat, plain, unimaginative thing that blots out the sky.”
“It’s almost like there’s a gentrification bull’s-eye on Ardmore,” she added. “Dump it all in Ardmore and change the character of the community all together. It’s not right. I think we need to fight it.”
She’s concerned about limited parking, a lack of affordable housing, and an influx of wealthy but noninvested residents who view Ardmore as a temporary home, not a place to put down roots, she said.
Kathleen Abplanalp, director of historic preservation at the Lower Merion Conservancy, said she isn’t against updating the downtown if it’s done the right way.
“People want to develop there for a reason,” she said, “because it has this charm.”
From a historical perspective, Abplanalp said, she is happy to see developers plan to keep the theater’s facade and restore the marquee (the current one likely dates to the 1960s, she said). But she’s worried, she said, about tearing down the old auditorium and constructing a building similar in design to One Ardmore.
“I would say, with the design, I’d be looking for something that respects the current building more so than what I’ve seen,” she said. After all, “this is the historic district.”
And the theater building is the area’s “keystone,” she said.
The cinema was built in 1922, Abplanalp said, a time when movie palaces were being constructed across the country. Elsewhere on the Main Line, theaters opened in Wayne, Bala Cynwyd, and Bryn Mawr. Formerly a house and a stable, the Ardmore Theatre was one of the first commercial developments along that part of Lancaster Avenue, she said.
“At the time, it was a pretty big thing for Ardmore,” she said. “It was the landmark building.”
For decades, she said, the theater featured films, operas, and live performers.
The new millennium brought stiff competition from megaplex chains. The small theaters struggled to keep up. In 2000, the Ardmore closed. For a while, its shell sat vacant, then it became a Philadelphia Sports Clubs gym, and then the Tropicraft furniture store.
The applicant for the recent proposal, Freedom Ardmore LP, could not be reached for comment.
The Lower Merion commissioners will have the final say in whether the complex is constructed, township officials said.
Because the theater is in the Ardmore Historic District, changes to the outside of the building must be deemed appropriate by the Historical Architectural Review Board, Leswing said. Freedom Ardmore LP could make a formal application as early as mid-September, said Greg Prichard, the township’s historic preservation planner and a liaison to the board.
LaVassaur said she hopes the historical board stands up for longtime residents and takes into account what they’d like their town to look like.