Sedgwick Theater among several downtown Mt. Airy properties up for sale

Mt.Airy’s Sedgwick Theater is up for sale along with several other properties along the 7100 block of Germantown Avenue. Property owners David and Betty Ann Fellner have decided to put their entire Germantown Avenue real estate holdings on the market.

“We’re a lot older than we were when we started. It’s time to move on.” David Fellner explained.

As the couple looks towards retirement, they’ve decided that it’s not appropriate at this point in their lives to take on more debt, he explained. As it stands, their property has only been developed to around 30 to 40 percent of its best uses, Fellner said. He estimates that it would take millions to fully develop the Sedgwick Theater.

The Fellners hope to attract an interested party with a lot more capital and resources to fully develop the property.

What’s for sale

The Fellners’ own nearly all of the mixed-use properties between 7133 and 7169 Germantown Avenue. The block’s centerpiece is the historic art deco theater, built in 1928 by Philadelphia architect William Harold Lee.

The asking price is $10 million for the total 1.65 acres of land, which includes 52,311 square feet of improvements. The area behind the Sedgwick and the Video Library, much of it a parking lot, extends all the way to Chew Avenue.

Fellner said the selling price is fair relative to the 2009 sale of the former Magarity Ford Dealership in Chestnut Hill, which sold for $5 million. Though the total acreage is nearly the same, Fellner noted the properties are income producing.

The numerous commercial tenants include Infusion Cafe, Chef Ken, Juice Room, Don Murphy’s Barbershop, Golden Crust Pizza, Mi Puebla Mexican restaurant and the 7165 Lounge.

As for his tenants, Fellner said they should not be affected in the short-term as the sale will likely take time. After the property sells, any future development could take years as it undergoes the required dialogue with community.

A dream to build community through art

The Fellners bought the Sedgwick Theater in 1994 with two goals in mind: build a retirement nest egg and create a focal point for the community.

In those days, the neighborhood did not have its own “sense of place,” according to Fellner. He and his wife bought the theater envisioning a vibrant cultural center for Mt. Airy.

They spent $300,000 in renovations to the theater’s lobby and bathrooms and in facade improvements completed on the Sedgwick and Infusion Cafe.

Fellner said he and his wife saw the investment as a kind of laboratory for community organization and economic development. Together, the Fellners viewed arts to be a major force in neighborhood revitalization.

They formed the non-profit Sedgwick Cultural Center, starting with visual artists who held exhibitions in the lobby and at the adjacent Video Library. Gradually the center evolved its arts and culture programming. The center hosted gallery space for the Artist League of Mt. Airy (ALMA), housed an artist-in-residence program, put on weekly jazz concerts and workshops, began a monthly experimental music series, as well funded an annual arts and culture festival, ArtJam, which attracted 10,000 people in its fourth year.

Within a decade, the neighborhood began to transform and attract more commercial enterprise downtown. Fellner said he believes the Sedgwick Cultural Center was the catalyst for that change.

“In a sense what Betty and I did is what a [community development corporation] CDC should be doing,” he said.

Partnerships desired

After Betty Ann Fellner retired as executive director of the Sedgwick Cultural Center in 2004, the torch was passed to another board member. The organization, which was saddled with debt, dissolved after two years.

David Fellner said one of the reasons the cultural center failed was because it didn’t have the kind of financial support or commitment within the community that it required to keep it going.

“It would be nice if the community had the resources and wanted to organize itself be a partner, but it hasn’t,” Fellner said.

Inspired by the way the community came together to preserve and support historic theaters in Ambler and Doylestown, the Fellners hoped to be able to do something similar with the Sedgwick.

Today the Sedgwick is home to the Quintessence Theatre Group. While the couple is delighted with their tenant, the young, non-profit theater company does not have the resources to pay substantial rents.

Today’s economy has left many non-profits in no financial position to partner, while other community organizations in a better position to do so want instead to take control, said Fellner. 

The Ogontz Avenue Revitialization Corporation (OARC), a Northwest Philadelphia CDC, leased the former North By Northwest restaurant (now 7165 Lounge) from the Fellners, but that relationship soured within months.

In 2009, OARC filed a $760,000 lawsuit against Fellner, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Fellner says that the neighborhood’s own CDC, Mt. Airy USA (MAUSA), has not expressed any interest in partnering.

“We want to see the Sedgwick preserved as a cultural resource as much as anybody,” said Anuj Gupta, MAUSA’s executive director. “The fact that we are able to have Quintessence in our own backyard is a real treasure.”

Gupta says Fellner has come to MAUSA for help in finding grants to rehabilitate the Sedgwick for use as a community cultural venue. MAUSA investigated funding availability under the city’s arts and culture office but the recession has made such grants virtually nonexistent, he said.

Gupta added that MAUSA would welcome information regarding resources that could be used to preserve the Sedgwick to see if there is any role for the CDC.

Uncertain fate

The Sedgwick was on the market for several years before the Fellners bought it. Today, Fellner said that after being on the market for less than a month, there has already been some interest in the properties.

Though the preference is to sell all the properties together, Fellner said he would consider selling separately to the right people. If the sale was split up, the buyer would need to have a credible track record in order to protect the other properties from losing value, he said.

And there is still the possibility that the properties will not be sold after all.

Fellner has been asked by some public officials to come up with a concrete proposal for the Sedgwick, he said. If the Fellners felt partnerships to finance and develop a community cultural center were feasible, their goals would change.

For right now, the couple feels they no longer have a role to play in such community building efforts. “It’s disappointing, but we just have to be satisfied with what we have accomplished,” Fellner said.

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