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Audiences awaiting Anacostia Playhouse’s opening in April may have to wait longer than expected. About two weeks ago, with demolition complete and building set to begin, the project hit a permit snag that has left the warehouse at 2020 Shannon Place SE locked and quiet with a “Stop Work” notice stuck to its door.
Before construction can begin, the playhouse requires a building permit from D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. But acquiring that permit has been delayed because of a parking technicality. It’s an issue that came “out of the blue,” says CEO Adele Robey. She says the snag has left the project at least two months behind—-and may postpone the opening until October.
It came as a surprise to Robey, because she thought they had provided the minimum number of parking spaces. But the would-be playhouse is in a C-M-1 zone, or a low-bulk commercial use zone. Law requires the commercial space to provide a minimum of one on-site parking space for every 10 seats of occupancy capacity. Anacostia Playhouse—-formerly H Street Playhouse—-has a 150-person capacity. The Robeys rented the warehouse, along with the requisite 15 spaces, from the same property owner.
When Robey and her daughter, Managing Director Julia Robey Christian, applied for a Certificate of Occupancy, they discovered the parking spaces and the warehouse are on separate tax lots. The alley that runs between the warehouse and the parking spaces is public space, making it difficult for the two tax lots to be combined—-even if they’re owned by the same party. Now, the playhouse has to file an appeal to D.C.’s Board of Zoning Adjustment. “The appeals process can take several months,” writes Robey Christian, “and we will not be issued a building permit until the variance is granted.”
This could be a huge setback for Anacostia Playhouse and the people who are already on board to use the space. If the facility is not operational by early June at the latest, planned productions will be bumped. Both the D.C. Jazz Festival and the D.C. Black Theatre Festival are scheduled to use the Anacostia Playhouse in June. Theater Alliance’s Broke-ology was supposed to inaugurate the new space in the spring. If the playhouse’s opening is delayed until October, Theater Alliance will have to produce the show in another theater space—-an especially tough prospect because the company received a $17,500 grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to produce the work specifically east of the river. Without the Anacostia Playhouse to rely on, the company’s options are pretty limited.
A significant delay could be costly for the Robeys, too. Their landlords have granted them six months of free rent to cover the construction phase. That grace period ends on May 1. If the playhouse is not operational by then, the Robeys could be on the hook for $5,000 in monthly rent—-and zero income to help pay for it. They also run the remote risk of losing the lease on the space, which stipulates that the playhouse be open for business within two months of the six-month grace period. That could cost the playhouse “untold amounts of money,” writes Robey Christian, “as we will have defaulted.”
The managing director says delays could have a negative trickle-down effect on the surrounding businesses, too. “One hundred people not going to see a show in our theater one Friday night is 100 people not grabbing a bite to eat beforehand at Big Chair Coffee,” she writes. She is also concerned the delay “could cause a ripple effect of stalled subsequent development.”
The Robeys say they are doing whatever they can to prevent these delays and complications, including working closely with the DCRA, Office of Zoning, and Office of Planning. Robey Christian says DCRA’s Legislative and Public Affairs Director Helder Gil has been helping the family find solutions, “but the regulations do not leave much room for interpretation.” They have contacted D.C. councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells to see whether the D.C. Council could provide them some legislative relief. “We are confident that we will find a way to shorten this delay,” writes Robey Christian.
“We have everybody really working on it,” Adele Robey tells me as we stand inside the warehouse looking over blueprints for the playhouse, “because everyone is in favor of the project.”
Image courtesy Julia Robey Christian