NORWALK. Conn. – Thursday will mark the last picture show for The Garden Cinemas, which will close after a final screening of Two Popes and Marriage Story, ending a 25-year run and dashing the hopes of cinephiles who signed petitions by the hundreds to save it.
In an email to NoN, Richard Freedman, owner of the Isaac Street theater, thanked his patrons and blamed empty seats – economics, pure and simple – for the venerable theater’s demise.
For two years, Freeman subsidized the Garden; all the while, he said, business declined. Last March, with attendance down by half, he said he would sell the property no matter what.
“No matter what,” in this instance, undoubtedly refers to the outlook for Wall Street Place, aka POKO, the on-again, off-again mixed-use development languishing across Isaac Street.
While Freedman said the closing has nothing to do with POKO, he noted his business began to go down five years ago, just about the time POKO began to go up. He also pointed out that the Garden’s sister theater, the Avon in Stamford, is flourishing, screening the very same films. Freedman closed his other Stamford arthouse, the State Cinema, in 2018.
By virtue of its location, the Garden’s fortunes have long been tied to those of Wall Street Place, conceived in 2004, approved in 2008, begun in 2015, and bankrupt in 2016. Construction stopped due to a $9 million shortfall and the subsequent death of the developer, Ken Olson of POKO Partners.
Owner Citibank, in conjunction with its preferred redeveloper, JHM Group, revealed a plan in July to demolish the cinemas to make way for a parking garage to replace spaces horse-traded by the original developer to an adjacent property. That property is the Isaac Street lot now owned by real estate broker Jason Milligan, whose clashes with local officials are legion. The city is challenging the legality of his purchase in court.
Without additional parking it will be impossible to restart the construction of Wall Street Place. Developer JHM made an offer to Freedman for his property. Freedman accepted, prompting citizens to circulate a petition that drew 14,000 signatures in support of a sequel: a nonprofit New Garden Cinema/Norwalk Film Center in keeping with the Wall Street gestalt as Norwalk’s arts district and cultural heart.
As yet, the plan to build a garage on the site of the cinemas is still in the planning stages. The Common Council tabled a vote in late July, and Mayor Harry Rilling announced that it would be taken up again in September. “Wall Street Place discussions are ongoing,” he wrote Monday. “However, I’m not pleased with the lack of progress at this juncture.”
Council President Barbara Smyth (D-At Large) echoed the mayor’s sentiment, calling herself “extremely disappointed.” Planning Committee Chairman John Kydes (D-District C) pronounced it “time to hold people’s feet to the fire and get this done.”
Milligan deflects critics who blame his purchase of the former Leonard Street lot as the impetus for replacing Garden Cinemas with a parking garage. And he counts himself among the many who are hoping The Garden Cinemas can reopen, “under new management, new energy, and new circumstances.”