Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Grants offer hope for Takoma Theatre renewal

Studies to determine feasibility of reopening historic venue

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Local groups are hoping to refurbish and reopen the Takoma Theatre on Fourth Street in the Takoma neighborhood of Washington, D.C., but the owner, who tried for years to bring live performances to the venue, is not optimistic about the efforts.
The Washington, D.C., government recently approved $100,000 in grant money to study the feasibility of reopening the Takoma Theatre as a performing arts venue, but the building’s owner says the theater’s location and structural limitations remain major obstacles to that goal.

The grant money will be awarded to the Takoma Theatre Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group that formed last year to raise money to buy the theater. The group’s president says the amount could fund as many as three to four studies, ranging from how a reopened theater would affect the nearby residential neighborhood to how best to operate the theater should it reopen.

One recent study, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Webb Management Services through grant money from the District’s Neighborhood Investment Fund, has already looked at the existing market for live theater in the area.

That study called the theater’s situation ‘‘positive” and said its findings suggested ‘‘the theatre can and should be restored” as a multipurpose community arts center or permanent home for established performing organizations.

The property, which sits two blocks from the Takoma Metro station, has been appraised at about $3.5 million if the building is torn down and $1.5 million if it is left standing, according to owner Milton McGinty.

D.C. Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, who first proposed the grant money to the D.C. Council, said the $100,000 will be made available to the conservancy group in October. She said the figure is typical for feasibility and planning projects.

‘‘This is a very important corridor to us,” Bowser said, emphasizing that the theater would serve residents in the District and Takoma Park. ‘‘If we can enliven this corridor and make it a destination where neighbors want to come, that’s a great investment.”

McGinty has for years wanted to convert the building at Fourth and Butternut streets N.W. into a commercial space, but has had applications rejected by the District’s Historic Preservation Office. The theater was built in 1924 and used as a movie theater until McGinty, a playwright, bought and renovated it in 1983 for live theater performances. But over the years, the theater struggled to draw acts and an audience, and in 2006, McGinty did not renew his license to hold performances there.

‘‘I don’t think the area is conducive to theater-going,” he said. ‘‘The building is in bad shape. It’s an old building, and since it was a motion-picture building, it wasn’t made to be a live stage theater. I think it has many limitations.”

But Loretta Neumann, the president of the Takoma Theatre Conservancy, argues that a market does exist for theater in the area, and points to the Webb Management study, which said the theater’s access to the nearby Metro station and its medium size (516 seats) could allow it to compete against other regional theaters and fill a niche, because most theaters are much larger or smaller. The group hopes that a reopened Takoma Theatre could play a role in the area’s overall redevelopment.

Takoma Theatre Conservancy is preparing to launch a renewed fundraising campaign and will soon hold public meetings to discuss the surveys in detail, she said. So far, the group has raised more than $13,000 in private donations.

‘‘We’re a community group that is trying to save and trying to create a community resource,” Neumann said. ‘‘It’s an icon in our neighborhood.”

McGinty said he is still waiting for an offer on his property unless he is permitted to transform it into offices or apartments. Were that to happen, he said, he would keep the theater’s marquee and facade as part of the design.

‘‘The present is more important than the past, but the past can be recognized for what it did,” he said.