The historic Burbank Theater sold for $1.6 million in a Wednesday auction after sitting mostly empty for the last two decades. The winner of the auction has yet to be made public.
The 72-year-old Art Deco icon sits in an unincorporated neighborhood that borders San Jose. The neglected and abandoned theater went up for auction Monday with a starting bid of $200,000. The bid jumped from $600,000 Wednesday morning to $1.6 million when the bidding closed.
The sale has sounded alarms from local preservationists and neighboring residents who want to preserve the building’s original architecture and iconic sign that bears the community’s namesake. They don’t want to lose the neighborhood’s history
“Physical icons like that bring communities together, and it gives residents an identity,” Jimmy Lew Jr., longtime resident and former president of the Burbank Community Association, told San José Spotlight.
Ben Leech, executive director of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, mobilized to spread words about the auction. He expected the building to go for less, but said he wasn’t surprised at the $1.6 million bid. The building was listed around the same price previously.
Built in 1949 at 552-560 S. Bascom Ave., Burbank Theater was a classic neighborhood movie theater that turned into an eyesore in recent years. As movie theaters declined in popularity in the 1970s, the Burbank Theater pivoted to showing adult films, which was controversial at the time, Leech said.
The building became further underutilized after it lost its parking lot to make way for Interstate 280. Residents and lawmakers have attempted to revitalize the two-story building—with dance studios and a vision of an Islamic center—to little success. A local lawmaker and residents launched a campaign in 2018 to recognize the building’s architectural and historic significance, and the theater was added to the Santa Clara County Heritage Resource Inventory.
In 2019, the building went into foreclosure and is now owned by the U.S. Bank National Association—pending the sale. It has sat vacant since, collecting vandalism and graffiti—like many nearby buildings along South Bascom Avenue between Parkmoor Avenue and San Carlos Street.
The key to revitalizing the neighborhood
Since Leech’s nonprofit mobilized to spread word about the auction, many have reached out to offer their support, he said.
“Someone could see this theater as a dilapidated eyesore, and it would be better as a vacant lot, but we’re not hearing that and that’s encouraging,” he told San José Spotlight.
The building is still structurally sound—making it a perfect candidate for a renovation that would preserve the building’s design, he added. He went on two tours of the building ahead of the auction.
“San Jose has lost a number of historic theaters over the years,” Leech said. “When we lose these, we’re losing that ability for a place to be a community anchor and a landmark visual icon. Burbank adds all those things to the Burbank neighborhood.”
The building was recently added on to PAC-SJ’s “Endangered 8” list of historic structures that are most threatened in San Jose.
“A lot of the residents are excited to see it reinvigorated,” Lew said. “But yet there are some residents who understandably want to tear it down because they’re just sick and tired of seeing an abandoned old building with graffiti on it.”
Despite its current conditions, residents still believe the Art Deco theater from the golden age of cinema, with its distinct neon sign and three storefronts, could be the key to revitalizing the much-neglected area—especially under the right ownership.
“Bascom is a struggling commercial corridor,” Leech said. “With more businesses coming in, I think that would really enhance the neighborhood and the livability for both people who live there and people who work nearby.”
For Leech, it makes the most sense to keep the Burbank as an art-based institution. Ken Colson, president of the Burbank Community Association, said several local art groups are interested in the property. But it’s unclear what might happen to the historic building.
San Jose has a track record of tearing down historic buildings for cookie-cutter developments, Lew said. And whoever ends up with the building will still have the parking constraint, which could limit the options of what can replace the building.
“The theater was designated as historic inventory in Santa Clara (County). That means any investor would have to abide by certain rules in terms of of tearing it down or modifying it in some way,” Colson said. “So there would be all kinds of hearings, and we would, of course, show up.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.