A hole in the ground is all that remains Aug. 8 after the demolition of the Main Art Theatre in downtown Royal Oak. A five-story, mixed-use development is slated to take its place.

A hole in the ground is all that remains Aug. 8 after the demolition of the Main Art Theatre in downtown Royal Oak. A five-story, mixed-use development is slated to take its place.

Photo by Sarah Wojcik

Mixed-use development coming to site of former Main Art Theatre

Friends of the Main Art Theatre pledge to keep going

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published September 8, 2022


ROYAL OAK — After the Royal Oak City Commission unanimously approved a five-story planned unit development requested by the property owner of the Main Art Theatre on May 23, demolition crews got to work in July.

Advocates of independent cinema and culture had banded together in an effort to save the 80-year-old Main Art Theatre after it shuttered in June 2020, creating the nonprofit Friends of the Main Art Theatre.

However, private property owners have the right to demolish structures on their land, and, on April 12, the Royal Oak Planning Commission voted 4-2 to recommend approval of a proposed planned unit development on the theater’s site.

The mixed-used development will include retail, restaurant, residential and Class A office space. Jordan Jonna, principal owner of North Main Square LLC, who owns the building, said the Bloomfield Hills-based company purchased the building in 2017.

Landmark Theatres terminated its lease and removed all of its projection equipment in 2021 “due to poor attendance (as well as) changes in the way the industry is distributing independent films and changes in viewing habits brought about (by) streaming options,” according to a statement by Patricia Radice, of the public relations firm The Quell Group, which represents A.F. Jonna Development — owner of North Main Square LLC — and its legal counsel, Dennis Cowan.

The petitioners’ plan includes refurbishing and installing the iconic Main Art Theatre marquee on the exterior of the new development.

In a letter to the Royal Oak City Commission dated May 17, 2022, Cowan said North Main recognizes that “there will be former patrons of the Main Art Theatre who will be disappointed with this proposed change” and that North Main “has worked with the Friends of the Main Art Theatre and seriously considered their proposal to continue film operations at the current building.”

However, Cowan wrote that in North Main’s business judgment, such a proposal “was not feasible.”

During the May 23 City Commission meeting, Jonna said the building “is in very bad shape” and that it floods “all the time” because there is a “high water table on this corner.”

Commission Kyle DuBuc said he sympathized with the Friends of the Main Art Theatre and also loves the theater.

“But loving it doesn’t make it legal or ethical or give anyone at this table the right to leverage the power of government to essentially take someone’s property or dictate a specific business be run on that property,” DuBuc said. “We have been working in good faith and discussing in good faith how that element of the (Main Art Theatre) can be preserved.”

In a July 25 statement, the Friends of the Main Art Theatre expressed regret that “all efforts to work with the property owner and to engage local government in the task of saving this cinematic treasure have at last proved unsuccessful.”

The statement continues to read that the nonprofit group feels “helpless in the face of so great a loss” and, when searching for a place to lay blame, “ultimately we blame ourselves.”

“We lament every movie night skipped in favor of streaming movies from the couch, every movie ticket not purchased,” the statement reads. “We see in the travail of cinema the evidence of our own neglect.”

In an Aug. 30 phone interview, Pleasant Ridge resident and president of the Friends of the Main Art Theatre Jason Krzysiak said the property owner arranged for the Friends group to have two days of access to the theater before demolition to reclaim over 100 seats, the popcorn machine, some of the cabinetry in the concession area and lighting fixtures.

“We do plan to repurpose those items in a future space,” Krzysiak said.

The short-term plan, he said, is to partner with other arts institutions and find other locations throughout the city of Royal Oak and Oakland County to screen Main Art Theatre-type films, such as “indie,” “classic,” midnight,” “experimental,” “international” and other movies “not seen at the cineplex or other theaters.”

He said Pontiac’s Little Art Theatre reached out to the Friends group, and the Friends leadership is currently formalizing a programming schedule at the Pontiac venue.

The long-term vision, Krzysiak said, is to create a brick-and-mortar space in southern Oakland County that is dedicated to the type of films that were screened at the Main Art Theatre and that incorporates artifacts reclaimed from the former space in Royal Oak.

“We’ve done a lot of research over the last year,” he said, and added that a sustainable, community-based nonprofit business model is possible through a designated foundation, donations, grants, memberships and volunteerism.

For more information about the Friends of the Main Art or to learn about upcoming news, visit friendsofmainart.com or facebook.com/friendsofmainart.