Since the Metro Theater showed its last movie in 2005, numerous deals have been announced for the Art Deco gem on the Upper West Side. It was supposed to become an Urban Outfitters clothing store, the home of a nonprofit arts education group, an outpost of the revival-style Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain. But through it all, the Metro has stood vacant, its landmark marquee announcing nothing more than the phone numbers of various real estate brokers hoping to pull in a tenant.
Now, the broken-down, 82-year-old theater is about to be reborn, but not as a cultural institution as many in the neighborhood had wished. It will become the location of a Planet Fitness, a $10-a-month gym.
The deal is the culmination of a long, often contentious journey for the Metro, located at 2626 Broadway, between 99th and 100th Streets. During its life, it had been an art house cinema, a home to two national movie chains and a pornography theater. While the building’s facade cannot be altered, its interior was gutted years ago.
The theater’s owner, Albert Bialik, was for years locked in a protracted legal battle with a leaseholder. He won that battle in 2011, and since then has flirted with countless tenants, with several deals coming tantalizingly close.
Many in the neighborhood had hoped the eventual tenant would be akin to Symphony Space, the cultural center located just to the south on Broadway and 95th Street. When Councilman Mark D. Levine was elected to represent the neighborhood in 2013, he vowed to make such a deal. “Sadly, we weren’t able to find a workable deal for a cultural institution and I’m bitterly disappointed about it,” Mr. Levine said in a phone interview. “But having said that, I think any tenant is better than abandonment. And while it is a chain, at least it isn’t a Duane Reade.”
The conversations with Planet Fitness have been going on for more than a year, and a deal was signed last Friday giving Planet Fitness a 15-year lease, with a five-year option to extend.
Planet Fitness is the best use for the space, Mr. Bialik said. “I consider myself a steward of this building, and I’m happy that we found someone that will take proper care of it,” he said.
With 10,270 square feet on the street level and second floor, as well as 5,000 square feet below ground, the building is too small for a modern theater and would not be able to compete with today’s multiplexes, he said. Its lack of windows and its large marquee, which casts shadows on the entryway, makes it a poor fit for retail space, he added.
Planet Fitness said it would take care to return the building to its former glory, creating a gym that would respect the Metro’s historical details. The facade’s most striking feature is an Art Deco medallion above the marquee depicting two entwined figures holding the masks of comedy and tragedy. “We have worked in landmark buildings before and we really love this space,” said Gabrielle Lawlor, the general counsel for PFNY, LLC, the franchisee that owns Planet Fitness gyms in New York City.
Through all the twists and turns of the Metro’s story, the denouement might have been predicted almost from the beginning. In a 2008 New York Times article about the theater, Ross Melnick, a founder of the Cinema Treasures website and an author of a 2004 book, “Cinema Treasures,” said that chain drugstores and gyms were among the most common new occupants for decommissioned theaters.