The curtain will soon fall on the Black Box Theater.
After considering a delay, Gambier’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved on Tuesday a College permit to tear down the building at the corner of Brooklyn Street and Chase Avenue. The Commission also approved the demolition of the former site of the Gambier Grill, which closed last month.
Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman said during a break in the meeting that while no date had been set, the razing of the Black Box Theater would not occur before the summer. The destruction of the Cove building is scheduled for this week.
The College plans to replace the Black Box building with a market and housing, and to build North Campus Apartment-style student residences where the Gambier Grill building sits, per the Master Plan. About a dozen community members attended the meeting, which devolved into a larger conversation about how the College’s Master Plan will fit with the Village’s zoning code.
Some commission members maintained the Black Box building holds historical significance. Built around 1904, the building served as a bank, which was robbed in 1933 by members of John Dillinger’s gang.
“I would remark that this building is over 100 years old,” commission member Betsy Heer said. “It’s not really a blight on the landscape. It does have a certain architectural style.”
Kohlman disagreed. “It’s a cement block,” he said.
Commissioner Tom Stamp, College historian, said “any architectural significance” of the building “has been obliterated over the years,” including by a changed entryway and exterior finish.
The commission can only approve or approve with a 120-day delay demolition permits, according to Gambier’s zoning code. It cannot deny demolition permits.
A 4-4 tie resulted when commissioner Harold Ballard proposed a motion to approve the demolition with a 120-day delay. A tie failed the motion, meaning the commission would have to pass a motion to approve — which could result in the same vote.
“I think it’s a deadlock,” Village Solicitor Clinton Bailey said. “You have to approve it one way or another.”
The commission ultimately approved the permit when commissioners Franklin Miller III and James Bartee switched their votes in favor.
Before the vote, a few community members expressed opposition to the Black Box’s demolition.
Doug Givens, a former College development officer, said, “So a way to get a building torn down is to neglect it,” contending that the College had done so.
Mayor Kachen Kimmell, who chairs the commission, said, “This is not a public forum to argue about whether this building was neglected or not.”
Liz Forman, a Village councilor and former College administrator, asked whether the commission thought the Black Box was less historically significant than the former Craft Center, which the commission delayed approval for last year.
Stamp said the building was “considerably older,” was originally closer downtown and thus more historically significant, “including the fact that your grandfather lived in it,” he said, referring to John Crowe Ransom, who lived there from 1945 to 1958.
“Well, that’s all right. He’s lived in a lot of places and they’ve all been torn down,” Forman said. “I think the bank building has just as much significance.”
The Commission recommended several of the College’s variances to its construction plans to replace the Black Box and Gambier Grill sites, which included an exception to the zoning code’s 30 foot height limit. The Grill site will have housing of 31.9 feet tall and the market and housing building will be 39 feet. Village Council, which next meets April 4, will then decide whether to approve the variances.
Kenyon’s requests led to a conversation among Villagers and commissioners about the extent to which the Village’s code regulated the College’s Master Plan.
After the approval of the Black Box demolition but before the vote on the variance, Givens said the College’s Master Plan and the Village’s zoning code were in conflict, a contention Kimmell and Stamp denied.
“If they weren’t in conflict, why would the College ask for so many variances?” Givens asked.
“There are variances we do for all sorts of properties, not just College properties,” Stamp said.
Villager Jim Dunham said the approval of such variances created “a slippery slope.”
“The entire character of the central part of the village is going to change,” Ree Metcalf said, if the Master Plan’s plans downtown were realized.
“I really don’t want to see North Campus Apartments in downtown Gambier. Or students living there either,” she said. “The design for the North Campus Apartments was fine when we didn’t have to look at it.”
Kimmell closed the 3-hour long meeting asking “the citizens of the Village to be more considerate” about the College’s plans and the “millions of dollars invested in infrastructure in this town.”