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At the Avalon, the marquee reads the same as it has for the past year: “For Lease/Available Immediately.” Inside the glass front doors of the 80-year-old art-deco movie house is a run-down hollowness: The floors are ripped apart here and there, missing ceiling tiles expose vines of wires, parts of the walls are discolored from where pictures once hung, and brittle brown leaves have somehow blown in from the trees outside on upper Connecticut Avenue NW. Next to the ticket booth is an empty encasement with a “Coming Soon” placard but no poster.
Since the Avalon closed last March, residents in and near its Chevy Chase neighborhood have been trying to reopen the space; they launched the volunteer-based Avalon Theater Project last spring, started brainstorming, and devised a plan to turn the site into a nonprofit arts center. “It would have everything ranging from popular arts films to documentaries to children’s programming to classics programming. Plus, we envision it being a venue that the community could use for other types of theatrical performances,” says Jennifer Kaplan, vice chair of the ATP. “We really want to make it in use seven days a week, all day long. We’re open to usage suggestions; we just want to make sure it maintains the integrity of the original theater.”
The ATP circulated a petition to gain support for the idea, and last month it submitted a proposal to Douglas Development Corp., the firm that owns the property. But the ATP’s hopes soured just two weeks ago, when Douglas Development rejected its proposal over funding issues. “I’m not sure if it was surprising, but it was very discouraging. They even chose not to counteroffer,” Kaplan says. “That property is very expensive, and most cultural institutions couldn’t afford it.”
Kaplan says that she had been hoping that Douglas Development would be willing to grant the ATP the lease under the obligation that it would have a four-month time frame in which to prove it could secure the money. “We haven’t done any fundraising yet, because until we secure a lease, it doesn’t seem to make sense to make people commit money to something that might not come to pass,” she says. “But we have lots of people who have pledged support.”
Douglas Jemal, president of Douglas Development, says that he is committed to finding just the right tenant for the Avalon and that if the ATP can get the necessary funding, he’ll be happy to talk again. “There’s nothing for me to do until they have their money. Why would I take it off the market?” he says. “The way I would do it is I would first have the money to do something rather than just an idea—so that’s what I’m going to wait for. The property has been there for a year; it hasn’t been extremely active for a lease, so I think they’ll be in fine shape—they just have to put their financing together.”
For now, Kaplan says, the ATP has pinned its hopes on its new letter-writing campaign; it’s asking concerned Washingtonians to urge the city’s elected officials to put some pressure on Douglas Development to speed up the process of filling the Avalon property. “We want to get the developer to tell us what his needs are in terms of finding a desirable tenant—and then either we can try to become that or we can find someone else who can give him that,” Kaplan says. “I think we need to communicate that the community is very invested in making sure that the space is utilized soon and that it doesn’t just sit empty for a long period of time, because there are fears of that happening. So we’re going to keep aggressively pursuing this. We’re not giving up on our dreams for the Avalon.” —Aimee Agresti