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Kiel Opera House update

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Opera House keeps eye out for final act

By Charlene Prost

Of the Post-Dispatch

05/01/2004

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Cement bears watch over the Market Street entrance to the Kiel Opera House until developer Don Breckenridge is ready to develop it and a parking area upon acquisition of the Abram building.

(Jim Forbes/P-D)

It has been almost a year since developer Donald Breckenridge announced plans to reopen Kiel Opera House in 2005 and put Broadway shows and other entertainment back onto the long-dark stage.

As things are playing out, that probably won't happen in 2005. But in this scenario, lack of money and support - the usual problem that befalls developers with ambitious plans - isn't the issue.

"If we could have the Abram (building) today," Breckenridge said last week, "we'd have this ready to go in 18 to 24 months."

What he and his associates didn't know May 5, 2003, was the role the federally owned L. Douglas Abram Federal Building would wind up playing in their plans. Working with St. Louis city officials, Breckenridge and his associates concluded that the Abram, just west of the Opera House, could hold up to 800 critically needed parking spaces for the project. They set out to buy it. In keeping with federal procedures, the city would be the purchaser. Then, it would sell the building to Breckenridge for a still undetermined price.

But in January, the Rev. Larry Rice stepped forward with a plan to make the Abram into a shelter for up to 1,000 homeless people. Rice says federal law requires the federal owners to give priority to projects for the homeless when selling buildings, such as the Abram, that are being emptied.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services rejected Rice's application for the building, a decision Rice plans to appeal in court.

But Breckenridge and his supporters, including the city, aren't sitting idly in the wings, waiting for the final scene to play out.

Two want in

Breckenridge has two well-known companies committed to booking entertainment for the project: Clear Channel Entertainment and Fox Associates. He has lined up the initial $35 million of what eventually could be a $90 million development, going beyond the renovated Opera House and the Abram. Eventually, he'd also like to revive the vacant, city-owned Municipal Courts building east of the Opera House as " a small boutique hotel" with about 150 rooms, and work with the city on building a second garage east of the hotel.

On the money end of things, Breckenridge would use the Opera House, a yet-to-be signed lease with Clear Channel, Clear Channel's signed lease with Fox Associates and a lease with a parking operator at the Abram as collateral for a private loan. He'd use revenue from the leases to pay off the loan of about $18 million. He said he has banks interested in lending, too. He'd use state and federal historic tax credits, and his own money to help finance the project. And he's working with the city to set up a tax increment financing, and/or a transportation tax district to fill any gaps. In the case of the tax districts, some tax money generated at the reopened Opera House would go into the financing.

Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor for development, said plans for the tax district are still evolving. But generally, she said, the city believes Breckenridge's financing plan is sound.

"We've been working with the comptroller's office on this. And we are confident and optimistic that it makes sense, and will work," Geisman said.

Assuming it does, Breckenridge would spend about $27.5 million of the initial $35 million to renovate the ornate, 3,500-seat main auditorium, as well as four smaller theaters with stages. The smaller theaters, in particular, have been attracting interest from local groups. "We've been talking with all kinds of people about performances and special shows by groups that need only 500 seats," Breckenridge said.

The renovation plans also include installing new mechanical systems, expanding an outdated loading-dock area, building an acoustical wall to block noise from the adjoining Savvis Center and putting a restaurant into the old Kiel Club area. At the four-story Abram, he'd like to spend about $7.5 million to build 800 or so parking spaces inside, and renovate 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of space for activities related to the renovated Opera House.

"It could be used for educational purposes, rehearsal space. There are a number of uses for that space," Breckenridge said.

Providing enough parking on nights when Savvis is playing host to Blues hockey or other events has been an issue for Opera House developers from the start. Savvis officials, who control the lease for the city-owned Opera House, said last year they wouldn't sublease it to Breckenridge unless he builds a new garage or somehow provides about 1,500 additional parking spaces. If he does, they'd waive rental payments for 20 years.

Breckenridge said last week the solution, at least initially, would be 800 spaces at the Abram, 200 or so on a closed-off portion of Chestnut Street a block north of the Opera House, and valet parking on a lot south of Savvis with nearly 300 spaces. He said more spaces are available in a garage at the nearby Sheraton St. Louis City Center Hotel, which is in a building he renovated at 400 South 14th Street.

"We could do valet parking at the Sheraton, if we need to, the first year we're open," he said. "Then we would sit down with the city and if more parking is needed, we'd work out building a garage where the jail used to be ( east of the Opera House)."

Restaurant parking

Breckenridge said he's also talking with owners of downtown restaurants about arranging for Opera House patrons to have dinner and leave their cars parked at the restaurants during shows.

"We would be promoting downtown restaurants, and the idea of parking once so you could eat and go to the theater," he said.

Mark Sauer, president and chief executive for Savvis Center and the Blues hockey team, said he hasn't seen Breckenridge's latest parking plans. But he said that generally, "We are terribly pleased with the progress Don has been making, and we're very supportive. It would be great if the old Opera House would reopen."

Officials at Clear Channel Entertainment and Fox Associates said they're ready to do their part if Breckenridge and his associates can get the 70-year-old facility reopened.

Clear Channel operates theaters and books entertainment nationwide, and is already in the St. Louis market with UMB Bank Pavilion concerts and several radio stations. It would manage the Opera House complex, except for the Kiel Club area, and has signed on Fox Associates to bring in Broadway shows. Fox Associates operates the 4,500-seat Fox Theatre in Grand Center.

David Anderson, president for theater management at Clear Channel Entertainment in New York City, said Clear Channel is ready and eager to start lining up entertainment.

"We'd do a wide variety of programming," he said, "Broadway, off Broadway, performing arts, music, comedy, concerts."

Fox Associates would book mostly touring Broadway shows that would fit better into the Opera House's auditorium than at the larger Fox Theatre.

"Some (productions) play better to a bigger house, some to a smaller house. ... So we would have even more Broadway (shows) than we've had in the past," said Richard Baker, president at Fox Associates.

"But we can't book something that isn't open," Baker said. "And like everyone else, we're waiting in the sidelines, waiting to see what will happen" with the Abram building.

Reporter Charlene Prost

E-mail: [email protected]

Phone: 314-340-8140

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Kiel Opera House over the years

1934: Opera House and adjoining civic auditorium open as Municipal Auditorium and Community Center Building. Complex is renamed in honor of Mayor Henry W. Kiel in 1943.

1934-1991: Facility holds events ranging from Veiled Prophet balls, Ziegfeld Follies and graduation ceremonies to performances by the Metropolitan Opera, St. Louis Symphony, Elvis Presley and Rolling Stones.

1991: Opera House closes for demolition of Kiel Auditorium, to be replaced with what's now Savvis Center.

1994: Savvis Center opens.

1998: Edward Golterman forms Kiel for Performing Arts and proposes reopening the Opera House.

2002: Group proposes a school for the arts at the Opera House.

2003: Donald Breckenridge announces his plan to reopen the Kiel Opera House

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