It was a beautiful day outside, not that dust-covered and chisel-wielding Ryan and Tina North noticed. Inside a century-old former St. Paul movie house, it was another day of sweat equity trying to transform a cavernous yellow brick building into the live theater and concert venue of their dreams.
In many ways, the couple’s efforts to win over W. 7th Street neighbors has been a similar slog — tirelessly chipping away at community concerns about the theater’s potential impact on parking and a proposed liquor license’s effect on neighborhood peace. But, like the old brick walls they’ve uncovered and the once-leaky roof they’ve repaired, the Norths say they’re slowly and painstakingly making progress.
“We want to put things in here that reflect what the neighborhood wants,” said Ryan North, who envisions a restored North Garden Theater as home to plays, dance recitals, jazz concerts and wedding receptions. “It always helps to have the neighborhood’s blessing.”
It’s not that the neighborhood doesn’t want a new live theater across the street from the old Schmidt brewery, which was itself transformed into affordable housing for artists. In fact, the area — with its eclectic collection of antique, artwork and music shops — boasts a growing artists’ vibe.
Rather, it is the Norths’ plans to also host weddings and concerts — and to serve alcohol — in a building that has no parking lot that has fueled fears.
“I support Ryan, but there are some concerns,” said Jeff McAllister, who owns Music Go Round a couple of doors away from the long-decrepit theater. “Hopefully, Ryan will give some reassurances.”
Worries about parking
Ryan North said he thinks he did just that at a May 24 public meeting that packed the offices of the West 7th Street/Fort Road Federation. There, he detailed everything from security to the music they plan to feature to attract an older demographic — think jazz, bluegrass and folk.
He said he’s working with a nearby church to use its parking lot. Such details have helped convince some of the neighbors.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” said Ron Strunk, who lives nearby. “If it was open, I would use it a lot.”
So, too, would neighbor Marge Somora, who said a theater would “give people a chance to get together and meet other people.”
But with several bars and restaurants in the immediate area, including the nearby Shamrock’s and its live music, neighbors acknowledge that parking is a real concern.
“It don’t bother me none. Just don’t block my driveway,” said Pete Klein, who owns the nearby 7th Street Barbers.
Klein said neighbors seem more worried “about 120 drunk concert- or wedding-goers spilling outside the theater at night waiting for their Uber.”
Second Ward City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the area, called the North Garden Theater “an exciting and intriguing project.” And the Norths are good people, she said. “But people are concerned more about other events, or it becoming a club, with the parking and liquor and noise.”
Still, she acknowledged that the Norths are working hard to allay those fears.
The theater still needs to win designation as a commercial development district to qualify for a new liquor license, which would have to be approved by the City Council. Noecker did not say whether she supports that — yet. But her vote would be critical for the project to survive. The Norths are hoping to open in the fall.
A need for smaller venues
Ryan and Tina North met in 1998, when they were cast members in “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” at the Hey City Stage in Minneapolis. They’ve been married 16 years and own another business, Moss Envy in Minneapolis, which sells ecologically friendly home and personal products.
The Norths bought the theater in December for $80,000 after Tina North spotted the property online. The plan is for the theater to have 5,000 finished square feet with 150 theater seats and an elevated stage. A new marquee is planned for out front.
More than 400 people have signed an online petition supporting the project, Ryan North said.
Jessica Johnson, executive director of the Mounds Theatre in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, said her theater was also once an old movie house that had suffered from neglect. It was resurrected in 2003 as a venue for live performances and special events. It, too, has no off-street parking. And it has a liquor license.
Johnson said she supports the Norths.
“It’s great,” she said. “There just are not that many venues this size in the Twin Cities.”
Of neighbors’ fears, she said: “I honestly would be shocked if they noticed more than the marquee being lit. … Having a theater is such a boon to the community.”
Ryan North said they will sell the building if they are unable to open the theater. For now, they’re optimistic that they’ll be able to chip away at the resistance that remains.
“Lots of West 7th people support us,” he said. “And I won’t stop working on finding a solution for parking.”