Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Selling Former Villa/Ritz Theater

Villard Avenue theater is landmark on far north side main street.

By - Mar 23rd, 2022 01:32 pm
Former Ritz/Villa Theater. Photo taken in 2020 by Jeramey Jannene.

Former Ritz/Villa Theater. Photo taken in 2020 by Jeramey Jannene.

In the market for a former movie theater? The Department of City Development has just the property for you.

Built in 1926, the 840-seat movie theater at 3608 W. Villard Ave. was originally known as Ritz Theater. The theater, and two adjoining properties, were listed for sale Tuesday by the Department of City Development via a request for proposals (RFP).

The theater, for which the seats are still installed, has had quite a life despite being vacant for approximately the last decade.

In the 1960s it was known as the Villa Theatre, a Marcus Corp. property that was closed in 1986. Tanya and Herman Lewis bought it in 1988 and showed their last film in 1995. Since then, portions of the 7,200-square-foot building have been used as a salon, a school (known as AGAPE), church and bookstore. The city took ownership of the building via property tax foreclosure in 2015.

The theater is a landmark building on the Villard Avenue commercial corridor. Once part of the downtown in the since-annexed Village of North Milwaukee, the far north side street is seeing increased attention with the completion of the mixed-use Villard Square Library and Villard Commons developments. A block north of the theater, the former Custer High School is slated to be redeveloped.

“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. 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,” said area alderman Ashanti Hamilton in a statement.

Also included in the RFP are an attached 3,216-square-foot building, 3614-3616 W. Villard Ave., that was built as part of the theater complex and a 24-stall parking lot behind the buildings at 5221 N. 36th St.

The RFP calls for the buyer to restore the original Mediterranean Revival facade on the two-story complex, while optionally restoring the theater. Any future use is required to be fully taxable.

The Villard Avenue Business Improvement District estimates a restoration project would cost $2 million, but could be supported by a public-private partnership.

A 2020 design charette envisioned preserving the front facade and lobby of the theater, but selectively demolishing the actual theater to create an outdoor event venue. “[Galbraith Carnahan Architects] estimates that it would cost approximately $2.75 million to fully restore the theater, with operating expenses costing roughly $120,000 per year,” says the charette report. The building’s steel superstructure would be maintained as an homage to the former building, while the front facade would be maintained to give the structure a street presence.

Contracted BID director Angelique Sharpe, of Havenwoods Neighborhood Partnership, said the BID views this as a catalytic development for the area. “We would like to see it continue on with its long tradition of being able to house all kinds of entertainment such as cinema & film, performance, comedy, music, and dance,” she said in a statement.

The theater was one of five area sites studied in the 2020 charette, which was funded by the BID and DCD and led by UW-Milwaukee’s Community Design Solutions program.

Starting March 25, the city has scheduled six open houses for prospective buyers to inspect the theater complex. “The City suggests bringing a structural engineer and your contractors with you,” says the RFP document. It also suggests bringing a flashlight and advises that attendees will need to sign a waiver.

The BID is hosting a developer forum on March 25 which is intended to showcase available development sites in the area.

Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, in 2020, said he thinks Villard Avenue has the potential to rival Brady Street in urban vibrancy.

The asking price for the three-property complex is $75,000. The theater was previously listed on its own for $20,000.

RFP responses are due May 6.

The Ritz Theater isn’t the only theater to be offered by the city in recent years. The Grand Theatre at 2917-2923 N. Holton St. was listed for sale in 2021. The DCD website says a proposal is pending, but the department hasn’t brought a proposal forward to the council to complete the sale.

Photos and Conceptual Renderings

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