City seeking proposals for restoration of historic Villard Avenue theater

The city of Milwaukee is seeking requests for proposals from developers interested in restoring the former Villa/Ritz theater. (City of Milwaukee)

Last updated on March 25th, 2022 at 11:13 am

The city of Milwaukee and the Villard Avenue Business Improvement District have issued a request for proposals (RFP) for developers interested in restoring the historic Villa/Ritz Theater at 3608 W. Villard Ave. and returning the now vacant building to its original use as an entertainment venue.

“It is our hope that the movie theater will be a catalytic development such as the open-air theater rendering that was re-envisioned in our historic virtual charrette during the summer of 2020,” said Angelique Sharpe, of Havenwoods Neighborhood Partnership, which manages the Villard Avenue BID. “We would like to see it continue on with its long tradition of being able to house all kinds of entertainment such as cinema and film, performance, comedy, music, and dance.”

Constructed in 1926 by Michael Brumm to be an independent cinema, the 840-seat Spanish Colonial-style theater was used primarily as a movie theater through a variety of owners, up until 1986 when Marcus Theatres closed it, according to a press release from the Villard Avenue Business Improvement District. Tanya and Herman Lewis bought the building in 1988 and ran it as both a first and second-run theater and community playhouse for several years before ceasing operation in 1995. Since then, the building has been used as a salon, a church, a bookstore, and a school.

The city acquired the building through a tax foreclosure in 2015.

The renovation of the building is projected to cost nearly $2 million with the possibility of Department of City Development incorporating alternative financing such as historic tax credits, tax incremental financing, and other financing sources.

Alderman Ashanti Hamilton who represents the Villard Avenue business district said Wednesday that he was confident qualified developers would step up to help breath new life back into the neighborhood landmark.

“The impending redevelopment of the historic Villard Theater is expected to be one of the most significant investments on Villard Avenue, but also for the far northwest side of Milwaukee, and the city as a whole,” Hamilton stated in Wednesday press release. “I can personally remember a time where this theater was a destination that brought movie lovers from all parts of Milwaukee, both young and old, to visit Villard Avenue. This is a significant step for the commercial corridor, the neighborhood, and the entire city.”

To build excitement around the RFP, the Villard Avenue BID will host a virtual developers forum at 11 a.m. on March 25. The event, registration for which can be found here, will feature the historic theater paired with a panel discussion from industry experts including Lee Barczak, co-owner of the Neighborhood Theater Group which operates the Avalon Theater in Bay View the Rosebud Theater in Wauwatosa and Times Cinema on Vliet Street in Milwaukee. Immediately following the forum, developer teams will have the opportunity to partake in self-guided tours of the theater.

Proposals are due back to the city by noon on Friday, May 6.

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Cara covers nonprofits, healthcare and education for BizTimes. Cara lives in Waukesha with her husband, a teenager, a toddler, a dog named Neutron, a bird named Potter, and a lizard named Peyoye. She loves music, food, and comedy, but not necessarily in that order.

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