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Upper West Sider Dreams of Reopening Derelict Metro Theater

By Leslie Albrecht | December 15, 2010 7:30am | Updated on December 15, 2010 7:44am

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Michael Oliva strolled past the derelict Metro Theater on Broadway and West 99th Street for months, thinking, "Someone should do something with that old place."

Then one day he realized that someone was him.

Oliva, 38, was looking to take a break from a career managing political campaigns for judicial candidates. Now he's turned his attention to restoring the art deco Metro — which closed in 2005 — and turning it into a community arts center that would host music, dance and art exhibits.

He's formed a group called the Metro Theater Project and started hosting fundraisers last month, with the aim of buying and renovating the 1933 theater.

The vacant building is on the market for $10 million, though Oliva is hoping he could get it for less. Renovating the interior, which was gutted years ago, would cost between $2 and $4 million, he figures.

Elliott Dweck, the real estate agent trying to sell the theater, thinks Oliva's idea is "the best bet" for the building's future. Urban Outfitters almost moved into the space, so did a gym, but both deals fell through, Dweck said.

Next was an idea to turn the space into something called the Metro Galleria, where vendors would sell wares from booths like the Limelight Marketplace in Chelsea. But that didn't work out either, Dweck said.

"(Oliva) has the best idea for the place," Dweck said.

The 50-foot wide pink and black facade and marquee, which harken back to an era when America used the movie house as its primary form of entertainment, can't be altered because they are official city landmarks.

So far Oliva has raised $2,000 toward his effort, including a $500 donation from a stranger.

"I started to talk to people in bars and restaurants on the Upper West Side and I realized how many people here work in the arts and music," said Oliva, who lives across the street from the Metro and once sang in bands and played piano. "What started as a whimsical notion turned into something real."

He's written a 40-page proposal that he's shopping around to investors and he's applying for grant money. He's also interviewing people who've been involved in successful theater renovations for guidance.

When the Metro opened in 1933, it was one of 18 such neighborhood theaters between West 59th Street and West 110th Street, according to a 1989 Landmarks Preservation Commission report.

Most of those have disappeared, but Oliva sees bringing back the Metro as a way to create a mini theater district on the Upper West Side, because Symphony Space is just a few blocks away at West 96th Street.

If his vision becomes a reality, the theater will be reborn as a community arts space that will serve its diverse neighborhood, he said. In addition to concerts and performances, he'd like to use the space for educational programs for local schools.

The Metro is surrounded luxury high rises, rental apartments filled with seniors, and public housing, and Oliva says he wants all of those residents to visit the Metro.

"Where else in the country do you see that (diversity)?" Oliva said. "The Upper West Side is one of those places where, for whatever reason, the experiment worked, and people live together peacefully. My vision is different people of different economic strata. I want to see a mixed crowd there."

The next fundraiser for the Metro Theater Project is Friday, Dec. 17 at the Upper East Side home of Dodge Landesman, the Community Board 6 member who ran for city council last year when he was still a high school student. It will feature a performance by opera soprano Amanda Hick.