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Commissioners Hear Expansion Plans for Bryn Mawr Film Institute

Two new screens would be added to the theater.

Wednesday night, Bryn Mawr Film Institute moved one small step further in the list of approvals needed for the theater's future expansion.  At Wednesday night's Lower Merion Building and Planning Committee meeting, commissioners recommended approval of a lot line change for the theater and held a conditional use hearing for certain design plans for the theater's expansion.

The plans for expansion would involve building an addition to the theater that would house two new screens and face the Central Avenue streetscape.

Because BMFI's plans deviate from certain design standards of the Bryn Mawr Village District, they necessitate a conditional use hearing in which the applicant must show how they are still meeting the design standards of the district,  according to Chris Leswing, assistant director of planning. Any new or renovated building in Bryn Mawr must comply with the design standards.

"The design standards encourage a pedestrian-scale, highly attractive, village-centric development," but do have the flexibility through conditional use to meet those standards in other ways, Leswing said.

On Nov. 5, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the Institute's conditional use application. The Building and Planning Committee will vote on the conditional use application at their Dec. 12 meeting, according to Leswing.

Current Building and Future Plans

Bryn Mawr Film Institute currently has two screens at its theater, located at 824 W Lancaster Ave. in Bryn Mawr. Adding two more screens, advised BMFI Executive Director Juliet Goodfriend, is necessary for the success of the theater.

"We need to raise additional revenue so that when I’m no longer the executive director, who receives no pay, we can hire an executive director who does receive pay," said Goodfriend, who founded the Institute in 2002. "That revenue is crucial to us: there's no way to earn enough revenue with only two screens."

The expansion, to be located at 27 Central Ave., will house two theaters. The two existing screens will also be renovated, Goodfriend said, with total theater capacity increasing from 677 to 802 patrons.

Each new theater will house approximately 150 seats, said John Clover, representing the applicant.

The main way in which the plan is not compliant with design standards, Clover said, are requirements for an active commercial store front on the ground level and windows on the second floor of the building, both of which "work in opposition to the way movie theaters work ... you need dark, you need quiet," Clover said.

BMFI provided articulation, however, that replicates those elements and mimicks the feel and scale of buildings elsewhere in the district, Clover said: instead of active glass, movie posters or other display items will be featured along the Central Avenue facade.

The center of the facade (see rendering in the gallery above) would include plantings, and the second-floor area would include closed shutters to emulate windows, Clover said.

The applicant also agreed to create a six-foot sidewalk instead of a four-foot sidewalk, as per the recommendation of the Planning Commission, Clover said.

Reactions

Reactions to the plans were generally favorable, though commissioners expressed some minor concerns.

  • Board of Commissioners President Liz Rogan worried that an unadorned side of the facade was too plain and would be visible indefinitely while adjacent lots remained undeveloped.
  • Commissioner Brian Gordon asked about the possibility of adding more shade trees. Additionally, he wondered whether closed shutters on the second floor of the building might make the building look abandoned or closed. He asked that the applicant play with the design, and perhaps consider having a have false window with open shutters to make it look more welcoming.

The Building and Planning Committee will vote on the conditional use application at their Dec. 12 meeting.

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