ENTERTAINMENT

Why Madrid’s Gran Vía is nearly down to its last picture house

Former theater Palacio de la Música is set to become yet another clothing store

The Palacio de la Música on Madrid's central thoroughfare, Gran Vía. Mango, Gap and Primark are among its potential buyers. / Carlos Rosillo

In just a decade, Madrid's Gran Vía has gone from movie premieres to clothing store openings. Ever since the city passed legislation under then-mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, allowing movie theaters to be converted into stores, this major avenue has lost 10 of its 13 filmhouses. One of them is Palacio de la Música, the site of many major movie premieres. For years, the landmark building had avoided its ultimate fate - being turned into another clothing store. But that fate has finally come knocking. The building's owner, the Caja Madrid Foundation, has put it up for sale and is awaiting municipal permission to change its cultural status to a commercial one. The council will not be putting too many hurdles in its way, according to city arts commissioner Fernando Villalonga.

On behalf of struggling movie entrepreneurs, in March 2004 Mayor Ruiz-Gallardón approved a change to the 1997 Zoning Plan, effectively lifting cultural protection for movie theaters, which could now be converted into residences or shops. In just one year, 11 theaters in the capital shut down completely. Nevertheless, the city of Madrid established that protected architectural elements must be preserved, and that balconies, stages and stage machinery not be torn down.

One by one, Madrid's best-known cinemas began closing down: Azul, Imperial, Fuencarral, Luna, Aragón, Ciudad Lineal, España, Cristal, Madrid, Tívoli, Avenida, Palacio de la Música...

The buidling is a landmark and is protected due to its historical value

The last two belonged to the same owner as Coliseum and Lope de Vega, both of which were converted into playhouses or musical theaters. But Cines Avenida, which shut down in June 2007, became an H&M clothing store. Located at Gran Vía 37, it had been a filmhouse since 1926, and the Swedish company was forced to maintain the structure and façade given their architectural value. A year later, in June 2008, Palacio de la Música (located next door) closed after an 84-year history. But it looked for a while like it might retain a cultural use one way or another.

On the day of its last screening, on June 22, just 125 spectators showed up to watch Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead . A month later, the 6,630 square-meter, three-story building was sold by Valencian builder Juan Bautista Soler to the Caja Madrid Foundation, which planned to turn it into a music auditorium with a seating capacity of 1,500. It was scheduled to reopen in 2013. In March 2010 the city approved a special plan allowing the restoration of the site for its new purpose. "We want to turn the building into what it was originally, a concert hall, to prevent it from becoming just another shopping center," said Rafael Spottorno, director of the savings bank's foundation.

But then the crisis got in the way. Construction work, which had begun in December 2008, stopped short in January 2012. At that time, the central government was denying it had plans for a "bad bank" to absorb Spanish lenders' non-performing real estate assets, and instead focused on restructuring the sector through mergers. It was expected that Caixabank would take over Bankia (itself a merger of several savings banks, chiefly Caja Madrid). But that never happened. Bankia was nationalized, and the government created a bad bank.

Much of Caja Madrid's social work was lost along the way: cultural centers, libraries, exhibition rooms, grants, assistance for drug users, and so on. The contemporary cultural center La Casa Encendida survived, but the project for Palacio de la Música did not. Instead, the building was again put up for sale, for around 50 million euros. Potential buyers included clothing retailers from several countries, such as Spain's Mango, Japan's Uniqlo, American retailer Gap, and Ireland's Primark, according to news reports.

Object of Desire

  • Spanish chain Mango signed an exclusive negotiation agreement with the Fundación Caja Madrid in December to close the sale of the Palacio de la Música in three months, according the newspaper Expansión. Mango has refused to confirm this information.
  • Also interested are the Japanese firm Uniqlo , the US company Gap , and Irish retailer Primark.
  • An online petition against the commercial use of the building is gaining pace on the Change.org website.
  • The City Council says that so far it is yet to receive any official petition regarding the building.

But before closing a deal, local and regional authorities have to give the green light for its new commercial use. A petition against these plans is underway at the website Change.org, and over 1,500 people have signed so far.

The building is on the city's list of historical landmarks and is protected in its entirety because of its historical and artistic value. To change its current concert hall designation would require more zoning paperwork, and in any case commercial use would be confined to 4,000 square meters, or under two-thirds of the total space.

Opposition parties in the Madrid council have asked the ruling Popular Party to try to preserve the building's projected cultural use. "Madrid needs a second auditorium, as Gallardón argued, and it needs to maintain Gran Vía as a major Broadway that attracts cultural tourism," says Patricia García, of the centrist UPyD party. Ana García d'Atri, of the Socialist Party, said that "the cultural essence of this street has been razed by the clothing stores."

Madrid arts commissioner Villalonga retorted by lamenting that both councilors appear to be "more concerned about the fate of Palacio de la Música than about the 4,000 layoffs at Bankia", in reference to the labor force restructuring plan that includes the closure of 1,100 bank branches and layoffs for around 4,500 employees, following the nationalization.

Villalonga noted that the building "has only been a movie theater since 1932, and it would not be the first one to disappear. Don't entertain romantic notions - life goes on and the big movie theaters turn into something else, such is the course of history, we cannot keep up the same uses."

He also said that he discussed the issue with the previous chairman of Bankia, Rodrigo Rato, who was removed by the central government right before the nationalization. "We tried, but it was impossible. The city's chief goal is job creation, and we don't believe we have to keep [the building as a cultural center] out of romantic notions. If anybody wants to keep the building for that use, we'll be the first to be happy about it. I have tried to find a solution. But if the alternative is to keep the building closed and let it fall to pieces, then we're definitely not in favor of that."

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