When the Columbia City Cinema closed after a seven-year run, it left thousands in wasted donations and unpaid loans as the fourth independent theater to run into trouble under its now-bankrupt operator.

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When the Columbia City Cinema closed after a seven-year run, it left thousands in wasted donations and unpaid loans as the fourth independent theater to run into trouble under its now-bankrupt operator.

The vacant building can’t be occupied because when Paul Doyle remodeled it, he did so without permits. Fire inspectors found missing sprinklers and alarms, burned-out exit lights and flammable debris.

“It’s basically a big matchbox,” said Seattle Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith. “Once you know that, if something ever does happen … “

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So the two-story, three-screen theater sits empty in the middle of the summer movie season.

Doyle’s landlord, co-owner Keith Robbins, says he hopes to keep a cinema in the building, and that a California theater operator is interested in reopening the theater as a nonprofit. But that’s been delayed by Doyle’s bankruptcy filing.

The May closure has left hard feelings in a neighborhood that has grown from a smattering of restaurants and coffee shops into a destination with stores and a bakery, a theater with live music, a light-rail station and a farmers’ market.

The Columbia City locals had helped Doyle raise money to build the theater in an old Masonic Lodge, and repeatedly opened their wallets each time Doyle announced it was on the brink of failure. The total amount donated isn’t clear.

“We didn’t do extensive research on Paul because we were focused on, ‘OK, what can this guy do for our neighborhood?’ ” said Smith, who, as a neighborhood leader back then, personally vouched for Doyle as he asked friends to donate to the project.

Neighbors loved it

While the theater was open, Doyle himself often took tickets.

He greeted moviegoers by name and sent out a weekly email about upcoming shows. His popcorn was air-popped in peanut oil, his refreshments cheaper than at the big multiplexes. He allowed people to bring coffee from the Starbucks next door and held Tuesday “crybaby” showings for parents with young children.

The big theater, in an upstairs room that had been a ballroom, was charming.

“We surely miss it in the neighborhood,” said Marjorie Raunig, who lives nearby and made a point to see a show at the cinema once a week. “Every time I was there, I saw people I knew from the neighborhood.”

In a good month, Doyle said, 1,000 people a week went to the movies there. None were ever in danger, Doyle said.

In his view, the city ruined a beloved neighborhood business with onerous requirements and didn’t give him enough time to get the 1921 building up to fire code.

“This place did become kind of a symbol of the neighborhood, and people flocked to it, and they loved it,” Doyle said.

A dream, no permits

Doyle, a sometime copywriter who self-published a novel about Bigfoot, swore off theaters in 1997, the year he walked away from failing cinemas in the University District, Bellingham and Tacoma.

But he missed the movie business, he said, and when he toured the Columbia City building, he later told The Seattle Times, he thought, “This is what I’ve been looking for my entire life.”

Doyle ended up financing his $100,000 remodel mostly on credit cards, he said. He didn’t get any permits for the work.

Doyle said he was told, ” ‘If you want to open in the next century, just get it done and clean it up later,’ “

Before long, movie titles lit up the marquee. The first show in May 2004 was the Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet drama “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” People packed into the 204-seat theater upstairs.

In 2007, Doyle had a dispute over rent payments with the tenant on the ground floor. Doyle asked for donations, and the community came through with $3,000, he said.

His trouble with the city started after 2008, when he built two more screens. During an inspection of that work, the city discovered his earlier, unpermitted work.

Among the things the Department of Planning and Development says it found: nonfireproof floor and wall coverings, flammable debris in walkways and stacked against the back of the building, burned-out exit lighting, insufficient pathway lights, and no fire alarms.

“He got sloppy,” said local developer Pete Lamb, who loaned money to Doyle. “Of course, you get on the wrong side of the bureaucrats, you’re screwed.”

In 2010, the city shut down the cinema. Doyle promised to install sprinklers, and the city wrote him a temporary, six-month permit.

The sprinklers alone would cost Doyle about $100,000, he said. As it was, he could barely make his $9,500-a-month rent payments, despite loans and donations from community members and several people, including an architect and bookkeeper, doing work for free.

Doyle went to Smith and asked for his help getting a loan from the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, where Smith was a board member. Smith helped Doyle get a meeting, and in June 2009, the fund’s board approved a $35,000 loan.

At one point, Doyle sold what he called “bogus stock” in the theater. The state Department of Financial Institutions sent him a cease-and-desist order.

Doyle’s repeated cries for help seemed to wear on the neighborhood, even those who liked the theater.

“We’ve been hearing the owner play his woe-is-me violin for too long now,” according a comment on the Rainier Valley Post. “Shut it down and give it over to someone who can make a business of it.”

Blogging for help

Doyle went back to the community for money, blogging in spring 2010 that the cinema needed $20,000 to keep the doors open another six months.

“Don’t worry,” Doyle wrote. “It’s not like you’re throwing money away on a lost cause. We intend to be here for a long time.”

Behind the scenes, the situation with the city was worsening. On two occasions, the Fire Department forced him to close the main screen upstairs, which Doyle said cost him thousands in revenue. The city agreed to give Doyle more time, twice renewing his temporary permit.

15-minute checks

As a condition of the most recent permit, the city required Doyle and his employees to make rounds every 15 minutes to check for smoke or fire.

The theaters’ construction “constitutes a hazard immediately dangerous to life and property,” the fire marshal wrote in a June 2010 letter.

“It’s not arbitrary,” said Helen Fitzpatrick, of the Seattle Fire Department. “It wasn’t targeted toward a specific business owner. It’s not personal.”

Doyle says the city refused to work with him, and was “in punishment mode from the beginning” over fire-code issues.

“The city forced me into bankruptcy,” he said.

Finally, this spring, the city determined Doyle was not making enough progress toward getting sprinklers. Doyle’s temporary permit was not renewed.

If he couldn’t stay open, Doyle said he couldn’t raise money for the sprinklers.

“This could have been the simplest fix in the world,” Doyle said.

“It could have been an elegant operation by the city. Instead, they dropped the ball on it.”

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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