Saturday, August 01, 2009
There's a new drama going on at the Takoma Theatre, but its not the theatrical kind. The Takoma Theatre Conservancy is pitted against Milton McGinty, the building's long-time owner, over the future of the Theater as either an arts/cultural center or an apartment building. The Conservancy has been raising funds for the purchase and maintenance of the theater, but McGinty maintains that it is not for sale. Can a preservationists force an owner to sell property? It would give "hostile takeover" new meaning.
The theater, located on the corner of 4th and Butternut Streets in Takoma Park, DC, was built in 1923. Architect John J. Zink designed The Takoma and many other theaters in the DC area, including The Uptown and The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts, which still serve DC neighborhoods. The DC Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) designated the building as an historic site.
In February 2007, McGinty submitted a request to the HPRB to raze the building, with plans to replace it with an office building. The Takoma Theatre Conservancy formed in opposition to the application, leading to the HPRB denial of the request to raze the building. McGinty is now working with architect Paul Wilson to design a five-story apartment building. The design would maintain only the facade and marquee of the original building, and include a new 100-seat theater on the first floor. McGinty and his architect discussed the plans on July 30th at the theater and are hoping to submit it for HPRB review in September.
Having prevented the Theater's destruction in 2007, the Conservancy now seeks to preserve the structure and use it for a community-based art and cultural center to contribute to the revitalization of the Takoma area. Renovation and purchasing costs have been estimated at $6.9 million, with $1 million a year needed to support programming. Nevertheless, the group is confident that they'll be able to obtain grants and funds needed to convert the building; even now they are in the middle of a fundraiser for building acquisition and rental.
So that's a wrap? Maybe not. McGinty placed the property in a family trust to prevent a sale and asserts that he never has - and never will - consider a sale (though at least one news article contradicts that.)
McGinty's decision to build the apartments hinged on his unsuccessful attempt to run the Theatre as an active venue for plays and shows that challenged racial biases. Apparently, the 500-seat theatre rarely filled more than 50 of them. McGinty chides the community as unsupportive and reactionary. In the 11 years he produced plays, McGinty claims that no one from the "Takoma Park area" introduced themselves or offered to help; only now that they want to preserve the theater do they acknowledge his work. "Everyone applauds me, but nobody ever came."
The building appraisal in 2006 concluded the community could not support a theater, so McGinty moved along with the apartment building design and intends to make it work within the constraints of the HPRB; though he told his architect to design the very best building he could and then to worry about HPRB standards.
The battle of wills continues in Takoma. The next act will take them back before the HPRB. Will the HPRB side with McGinty this time or will the Conservancy manage to secure a repeat performance?
*Picture by Loretta Neumann of the Takoma Theatre Conservancy.