Walkabout: Films, food, beer serve as novel mix in Lawrenceville

Coming soon: The Row House Cinema

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Elders wax poetic about when neighborhoods had everything you needed -- shoes, hardware, butchers, bakers and at least one movie theater.

One of the best things about living in Pittsburgh today is the back-to-the-future energy of people who were born too late for the good old days but who embrace the concept intuitively.

Twenty- and 30-somethings are moving to the city for the same reasons people flocked to urban areas for centuries -- proximity to the metaphorical hearth, where community and amenities are at arm's reach. They are reclaiming the old storefronts as the new butchers, small grocers, book sellers and brewers.

The trend back toward the complete neighborhood is exemplified in a plan that brought three men under 40 together for a venture in Lawrenceville. At its heart is an old-fashioned movie house.

Brian Mendelssohn, 36, is building a single-screen cinema from scratch in the former Starr Discount at 4115-4117 Butler St. To be called Row House Cinema, it will start out of the gate with new digital formatting while many small theaters struggle to afford the cost of switching from 35mm. It will share the building with purveyors of craft beer and a destination restaurant.

Smoke Taqueria in Homestead is expected to open a new Smoke in one half. Atlas Bottle Works and the cinema will share the other half.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority last week approved a $63,000 streetface loan for the project. Mr. Mendelssohn, a movie buff, has also raised $17,000 in an online fundraising campaign.

Theo Ackerson, 33, will manage Atlas Bottle Works, a retail beer store he described as "a community center for beer lovers," with tastings, samplings and other special events. Its customers also will be able to sip a beer while watching a movie.

Geoff Sanderson, 29, will manage Row House Cinema. The 90-seat theater is being created from the basement up. Concessions will include vegan pastries, popcorn with various toppings and candy that patrons can mix and match.

A retro movie marquee for the facade is being designed. The decor will harken to the 1920s. Movies will not be first runs. Mr. Mendelssohn plans to show movies by theme, such as Zombie Week and an Alfred Hitchcock Film Festival.

"We think it will be magical," Mr. Mendelssohn said.

The usual concerns about parking and traffic came up at community meetings, said Matthew Galluzzo, executive director of the Lawrenceville Corp., the neighborhood's nonprofit community development group. "They will always be front-burner issues, but Brian did a good job of framing things. ... The project definitely has been vetted and has our support. I think folks appreciate the scale at which he is working to do a transformative project. It will be a small theater that I think of more as a neighborhood amenity."

"Parking always comes up, but people were pretty supportive, more excited about the amenities," agreed Lauren Byrne, executive director of Lawrenceville United. "When we did a quality of life survey, people said they wanted a movie theater."

The principal of Botero Development, Mr. Mendelssohn has renovated other Lawrenceville properties. He came here in 1995 from Chicago to attend Carnegie Mellon University. With a degree in physics and material sciences, he held corporate jobs for several years before turning his commitment to redevelopment.

"I loved this city from the first moment," he said. "I fell in love with the buildings, the infrastructure, the neighborhoods."

Mr. Sanderson, a Rochester, N.Y., native, formerly managed the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. Mr. Ackerson, who hails from the Hudson Valley, was the craft beer manager at Spoon and BRGR in East Liberty.

Both came to Pittsburgh because friends had come here.

"I'm excited to bring something new to the beer culture of this city," Mr. Ackerson said.

"I love the feel of an old movie house," Mr. Sanderson said. "It's exciting to come in on the ground level."

A soft opening is expected late this year, with a grand opening planned for early 2014. Mr. Mendelssohn said he has arranged for Pieter Jan Brugge, the Dutch-born producer of "Glory," "Heat," "The Clearing" and "Love and Other Drugs" to attend it.

The cinema development may indeed be magical. But a synergy is at work in the city that's more substantial than magic. It's the way cities grew in the first place, akin to the phenomenon that sends everyone at the party into the kitchen.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk. First Published October 14, 2013 8:00 PM


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