Saturday, August 01, 2009

Drama Over Takoma Theatre

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.


Anonymous said...

You actually talked with McGinty? Does he seem rational to you? Does he seem all there?

Anonymous said...

Takoma = crazies = own worst enemies. So sad. Could be a great neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

You ought to have attributed the overwhelming content of your blog to its original source:
City of Takoma Park Newsletter, July, 2009 and the article by Joy Lawson Jones. See page 3.

Have you no shame?

Shaun on Aug 4, 2009, 2:08:00 PM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shaun on Aug 4, 2009, 2:08:00 PM said...

Anonymous3- We did read the article in the Takoma Park Newsletter. We did not get the "overwhelming content" of our information from the Jones article. We did get our information from the Conservancy website, DC government documents and the conversation we had with Mr. McGinty. Our sources provided the foundation of our story, not the newsletter article. We care about our reputation as a quality source of information and would appreciate if you'd keep your false assumptions to yourself or address them to us directly for response. Thanks.

Sharon Villines on Aug 4, 2009, 5:41:00 PM said...

The Takoma Theatre Conservancy has had extensive professional analysis done of their business plan for operating the theater which was very positive. It has also talked with dozens of theater, dance, music, and film artists who enthusiastically support renovation of the building.

The department of historic preservation has told Mr. McGinty several times that he not only cannot demolish the building but he cannot alter the exterior. When he bought the building he knew it was in a historic district and could not be altered.

The theater is one of the first buildings designed by John Jacob Zink who designed the Senator in Baltimore and about 200 other art deco theaters in this area. Most of them have been torn down. This is the earliest example of his work that is unaltered from the original state.

It is unfortunate that Mr. McGinty has taken this position. One would think he would want the building he has loved and supported all these years to be returned to full use serving the neighborhood. Many residents remember the theater from their youth and are anxious for it to reopen.

The Conservancy is working with one of the top architectural firms in DC, Martinez and Johnson, who restored the Boston Opera House. They will provide Takoma with a truly beautiful centerpiece that will enrich the cultural and well as economic life of the community.

The people Mr. McGinty is hurting are the people in the community who love the theater as much as he does.

Anonymous said...

"Could be a great neighborhood" Sounds like you are some kind of urban real estate professional full of piss and vinegar. Historic Districts all over the country create tension. This will work itself out one way or the other over time. In the meantime let us know what urban utopian paradise you live in.

Angela said...

As a former Takoma Theatre Board member this makes me sad. But the unfortunate fact is - there is no, workable go-to-market strategy for Takoma Theatre. The venue is too large for the neighborhood as anything other than a film venue and even to do that would require $1 million+ in renovation and with the AFI around the corner there is just not justification for the expense. Sadly, Mr McGinty is right IMHO, without some deep-pocketed, benevolent, historian backer, the Theatre would be better as an apartment building with a small (100 seat) theatre. THAT would do more good for the neighborhood and the theatre community at large.

Sharon Villines on Aug 17, 2009, 8:57:00 PM said...

Hello Angela. Actually Angela was on the TTAP Board which operated a very good program in the theater several years ago. The current organization is very different and working on a different premise. They hired Webb Consulting in NY, one of the premier theater consulting firms, to do an extensive feasibility on a program that would make the theater viable. They reported that it would take diversified programming and additional space at the theater for rehearsals, offices, classrooms, etc. The educational component is important. A wing on the building is essential.

The Conservancy would have to own the building in order to build an addition and to secure financing that is available for non-profit arts and education programs. The fundraising plans are very high level compared to what TTAP was able to do. The Conservance has already been able to get grants to hire a fundraising consultant and to have other studies done. they have an excellent lawyer and commercial real estate broker who have worked on other non-profit arts space in DC.

The city has already invested tens of thousands of dollars and spoken with Mr. McGinty about purchasing the theater. He agreed to sell, in fact, but withdrew his agreement a few days later -- a typical pattern.

The ability to run a program and to raise the funds for purchase, renovation, and program support are not in question. It will take work but everything takes work.

The only thing needed is for Mr. McGinty to sell the building so it can be saved and become a community resource, a tribute to the years he has operated the theater.

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