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Historic Burbank Theater might become part of San Jose housing project

Affordable homes could be added to existing historic structure

The historic Burbank Theater in San Jose, a long-shuttered cinema palace whose past dates back to a bygone era of movies but whose future is murky at best, may become part of a housing development.

The housing project would preserve the front section of the theater, including the vertical “Burbank” sign, and then add residences to the property, plans on file at San Jose City Hall show.

The Burbank Theater opened as a movie house in 1951 but ceased showing films in 2000. The showings included first-run double features and eventually adult movies.

The potential development would be located at 552 South Bascom Ave. on a site just north of Interstate 280.

The proposal envisions a five-story building consisting primarily of housing, along with ground-floor commercial spaces, on the property where the old movie palace once operated.

The development features 62 residences that would be constructed within the new building, the proposal on file with the city shows.

The housing would be built on floors two, three, four and five. The residences would consist of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units.

The ground floor would consist of commercial spaces such as retail.

The existing theater is considered by some experts to be an important historic resource.

“The Burbank Theater is eligible as a Santa Clara County historic landmark because it is over 50 years old, is an excellent example of Cantin & Cantin’s Streamline Moderne theater architecture, and retains sufficient integrity to convey its historic identity,” Kara Brunzell, a historic preservation consultant, wrote in a 2018 report to Santa Clara County officials.

In its latter years as a movie house, the theater shifted away from mainstream films and began showing pornographic movies.

“It continued showing adult content for decades, cementing a reputation in the surrounding neighborhood as a pornographic venue,” Brunzell stated in its report. “Occasionally, the theater’s adult content included nude or partially nude dancers.”

In 1991, a neighborhood group launched a campaign to shut the theater over concerns about on-site sexual activity. In 2000, the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office forced the theater to close its doors.

Since then, entrepreneurs have crafted or launched an array of proposals to bring new endeavors to the theater.

The proposals have included a revival of film showings, a mosque, and most recently a dance, drama and fitness studio.

A Milpitas-based group called Tru Investments Inc. that’s linked to South Bay business executives owns the theater, Santa Clara County property records show. In 2022, Tru Investments paid $1.6 million to buy the movie theater site.

At one point, the new owner floated plans to restore the site as a movie palace.

Those plans appear stalled, and the theater is up for sale, according to the Preservation Action Council of San Jose.

The preservationists worry much of the theater structure could be demolished as a result of the new proposal.

“The preliminary plans filed with the city show everything but the marquee and sign tower being demolished, including the historic theater and lobby spaces,” said Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose. “We appreciate that the proposal saves the iconic sign, but we’re not yet convinced that this is the best or only viable reuse for the site.”

With the theater’s ultimate fate still up in the air, the preservationists called on the property owners to protect the site from vandalism and decay.

“While it may have once been seen as a nuisance, today the theater is widely loved by the surrounding community,” the Preservation Action Council stated in a post on its website. “Residents see it as an important landmark, and the sign, in particular, has become an iconic symbol of Burbank.”


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