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Theaters can't find homes? Fix the zoning

Smaller theaters that don't own buildings of their own are having trouble finding places to rent. Can DC's zoning update help fix this?

Great spot for a theater. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Nelson Pressley writes in the Post about numerous theater troupes which have outgrown their existing spaces, or are losing their spaces. With heavy demand for office and residential space in DC, there aren't a lot of affordable places to rent that can fit the performing arts.

It would make perfect sense for the arts to expand east of the Anacostia River and to other underserved parts of DC where space is cheaper. An arts space, the Anacostia Playhouse, is even working to open in Anacostia, though it's faced delays including some from parking minimums.

Pressley talks about a few groups which found unconventional spaces, like Spooky Action Theater, which uses a church basement on 16th Street in Dupont. But Spooky Action had to seek a zoning variance to keep performing in the church basement, which is very difficult to get; DC's Office of Planning could change this to an easier "special exception" to foster more performing arts.

Arts performances are not a by-right use in a residential area or in a religious building in a residential area. A variance, however, sets high hurdles for anyone seeking one; you have to prove that not getting the variance presents "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship" on the property owner.

Neighbors had some concerns about where audience members would congregate before shows and during intermission, but ultimately the theater did get its variance with support from the Dupont Circle ANC. The theater and church agreed not to allow any audience members to use the rear alley entrance of the church, so that any noise would be on 16th Street rather than near the rear neighbors' houses.

In its report, the DC Office of Planning said that it couldn't conclude that the need for a theater rose to the level of "exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship," but the Board of Zoning Adjustment ultimately decided that since the church is having financial struggles, its need to rent out its basement is exceptional enough.

But why should this be necessary? If another church, perhaps one in strong financial shape, wants to rent out a basement to the performing arts, and if they can ensure it doesn't unduly harm neighbors, isn't this a win-win for everyone? Unfortunately, the zoning rules make such a beneficial arrangement extremely difficult.

The DC Office of Planning could solve this problem by simply switching performing arts to a "special exception" standard, which is much lower. Under a special exception, the zoning board simply must determine that a use doesn't harm the public good, but there need not be some "exceptional" circumstance. For example, you can locate a home daycare in a residential zone, but have to get a special exception. The same could apply to a theater.

I live in a residential zone, and there happens to be a theater on my own block. It's a great asset, not a detriment. Theaters won't be able to afford to rent spaces in busy commercial zones when they're competing with restaurants and furniture stores. We can let them use other spaces nearby, spaces not open to retailers, and help the arts while enriching our neighborhoods with fun and culture.

(And go see a show at Spooky Action, or my neighbor the Keegan, or the Studio, Woolly Mammoth, or any of the other great theater groups in DC that put on interesting plays that are new and/or low-cost. There's a lot more to arts besides the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare!)

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Totally agree about churches. Shame they aren't filled but as a community gathering spot to listen to stories, seems like the perfect fit for a theater.

by Thayer-D on Jun 14, 2013 1:33 pm • linkreport

I have to reminisce how 14th St was home to multiple companies before it took off. Remember Woolly Mammoth at 1401 Church St? Metro Cafe, home to raucous Cherry Red shows, at 1522 14th St (now HomeMade Pizza Co)? 1409 Playbill Café? The old Arena Stage annex at 1901 14th St, now Matchbox? And we came close to losing Source too. And while Studio Theatre has grown and prospered, the Lincoln Theatre still hasn't found its groove.

by Michael on Jun 14, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

The same goes for theaters. That church from McLean that wanted to rent the Uptown for Sunday morning church services should have been able to do so.

Spaces should be enabled, rather than dis-enabled.

by Richard Layman on Jun 14, 2013 1:44 pm • linkreport

I've been to multiple musical performances at places like St. Stephens and such. These performances were just using the church as a venue. What's the difference? The fact that the concert is just one night as opposed to a run of dates for a play? St.Stephens is zoned differently (most likely)?

by drumz on Jun 14, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

That's got to be the ultimate NIMBYism worrying about theater goers congretating before shows. What are they going to do, acerbically critique your landscaping design?

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

It will be interesting to see if the Anacostia Playhouse can draw enough patrons at that location. Personally, I think some of those fears (people won't come to that neighborhood) are overblown. Gallery openings/events seem to do well.

by h st ll on Jun 14, 2013 2:30 pm • linkreport

Churches, especially, should be able to rent out to theater groups. Though their spaces are often designed for liturgical rather than theatrical use (that's not always the case, especially with newer churches), the ample seating, central locations, and high profile should be used more than just one day a week.

The United House of Prayer on 6th & M NW uses their sanctuary almost every night. The Baptist church on 16th & Columbia houses a charter school during the week. And the big red Baptist church on 8th & H NW rents out its sanctuary to other congregations all day Sunday. In each location, the neighborhood and the building owner are better because of the increased activity.

by David Edmondson on Jun 14, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

There is a market for cheaper theatre for sure. Tickets start at what $40 most places? If they can undercut that at say $25 people will go to Anacostia. It's not going to be the Kennedy Center crowd though probably.

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 2:57 pm • linkreport

"the ample seating, central locations, and high profile should be used more than just one day a week".

There was a post in breakfast links on Wednesday about a church at 14th and Corcoran NW requesting that the bike lanes be relocated to avoid the issues they caused with the church using that space for lining up cars for funeral processions. A lot of posters had issues with dealing with the externalities brought on to their neighborhoods from having to share public space with the church goers. Some complained that the inconveniences and nuisances they experienced went far beyond the 2 or 3 funerals that the churches near them were holding. These externalities extended to Sundays, Wednesdays,and many days in between. And the cause if these nuisances were people coming into their neighborhoods who 'don't even live here'. So now you're proposing that we extend the uses of these churches even more? Ie intensify the use (frequency and maybe volume) AND the associated externalities?

by A neighbor on Jun 14, 2013 3:02 pm • linkreport

A neighbor, are you be obtuse on purpose? No one is suggesting those buildings shouldn't be used, just that neighborhoods shouldn't grind to a halt to ensure plentiful parking. No one is suggesting funerals shouldn't happen just that they need to be conducted in a way that doesnt violate parking regulations just like no one is suggesting special parking privleges for theater goers.

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 3:09 pm • linkreport

Alan B., you've hit on the crux of the matter without even realizing it. YOU think the issue with the church on Corcoran was their wanting to drive there (which seems reasonable to me given that most of their parishioners probably live in Maryland now.). And THEY the church viewed the conflict as their long standing legal right to double park their as being usurped by 'new comments'. That's how disagreements and wars start. With each party thinking THEIR rights and concerns are the only CORRECT rights and concerns. The bottom line is that you increase the uses of an existing building in either volume, frequency, or by pushing its use to 24/7 and the result is going to be obvious, more opportunity for conflict.

by A neighbor on Jun 14, 2013 3:21 pm • linkreport

Meant by "new commer's". I don't think anyone is threatened by new comments ;

by A neighbor on Jun 14, 2013 3:25 pm • linkreport

A lot of posters had issues with dealing with the externalities brought on to their neighborhoods from having to share public space with the church goers.
...who were consistently double parking for events beyond funerals and such and even asked the city to move bike lanes rather than look at what they need to do to avoid the situation.

by drumz on Jun 14, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

Sorry unless I'm mistaken it's never been legal to double park? Non-enforcement of parking regulations is a gray area but that doesn't make it ok. I do think obviously if there are parking concerns that should be addressed in advance. If there isn't on site parking, they should be able to demonstrate that the theater won't cause excess traffic/parking congestion in the area.

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

And for 50 years they were told by the police, the Council, the mayor etc. that it was 'okay' to park like that. That church goers were exempt from following the parking rules ... at least on Sundays. The rule may have been unwritten, but it was a rule nonetheless. Now some new people come in and want to change that rule? And that's not conflict?

by A neighbor on Jun 14, 2013 3:35 pm • linkreport

The Keegan is my favorite place for theater in DC in part because it's right in the middle of a residential block. It just feels like a special place and part of the neighborhood. Even waiting in the lobby or out front has a chill, intimate vibe.

Of course, they're also really good at the whole theater thing, too.

by worthing on Jun 14, 2013 3:40 pm • linkreport

I didn't say it wasn't problematic and it is a gray area. But I think the argument that "that's how it's always been" is weak at best. For me you'd have to show that changing it would constitute some undue hardship and I just don't see how you could make that argument unless you argue that just about any parking restriction is undue hardship. You could even argue that getting special exemptions for funerals (say with 24 hour confirmation by DDOT) they could double park for an hour, but just trying to veto the bike lane entirely goes too far.

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

A neighbor,

That may be conflict, and the rules may need to change re: parking. But until then we can dispense with the whole "the newcomers just hate churchgoers" histrionics every time someone mentions something related to a DC church and/or parking.

That and "but we had an understanding" is a poor position to be arguing from anyway.

by drumz on Jun 14, 2013 3:47 pm • linkreport

Alan, you're focusing on one particular externality. Enterprises which serve large numbers of people produce lots of different externalities. The question (in this post) here is whether the externalities of a venue that could host 200 people at a time is appropriate almost 'by right' in an otherwise residential area. I,e. there are special exceptions in the zoning code that allow small operations such as art galleries to operate by special exception in the residential zones, or daycare centers in some, halfway houses in others, non-profits in still others. But does an establishment which could have 200 plus patrons coming in for 2 or 3 performances a day for an extended period have that right? And what about all the auditions, stage preparation, and other support which such an establishment requires? Spooky Action got their variance because they agreed to limit their shows to 45 a year with 75 patrons max per performance. And to make other concessions which would not have been required via a special exception. Spooky Action is a welcome neighbor because they AREN'T your regular commercial for profit theater and can't (anymore) re-rent their space as is the standard practice.

by A neighbor on Jun 14, 2013 3:48 pm • linkreport

I don't see it as a problem since the zoning board would still review the applications and presumably that would mean that there would be the possibility for public comment. I haven't been to a zoning board meeting in DC but that's how it usually goes.

by Alan B. on Jun 14, 2013 3:51 pm • linkreport

Why is no one mentioning the fact of "If you can not afford it go somewhere else" it seems to be the only thing mentioned on here when it comes to housing and it should be the same for businesses. If you can not afford the land simply go somewhere else or go out of business.

by kk on Jun 16, 2013 1:26 am • linkreport

Places of worship are a distinct use and, among all uses, enjoy specific Federal protections under the Constitution as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and, in DC and other areas that are not "States," under an earlier statute, Religions Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

That said, while *current* DC zoning allows places of worship to locate by right in all *base* zones, the Sixteenth Street Overlay requires a Special Exception for a broad range of uses that are not purely residential. Several other overlay districts impose various other requirements on all uses, including places of worship that are inconsistent with their exterior design (via requirements for windows and doors that would ostensibly be suitable for retail) and first floor use (by requiring minimal retail area as a percentage and limiting certain subsets of retail).

If a special exception is to be added to allow theaters in churches, the foregoing problems should be studied and resolved concurrently.

As to impact, theaters (live stage, as well as motion piciture) typically draw audiences in a manner similar to those that would travel for dining. Allowing both uses in the same area would tend to promote vehicular trips that would combine both purposes. But, for either, parking is a predictable area of intense interest by partisans on all sides.

Interestingly, the current retail overlays that bring difficulties for places of worship would also bring the same difficulties to most theaters if they were an intended primary use on both fenestration and first floor use requrements favoring traditional "retail."

All that said, allowing theatres to use existing areas within established places of worship could be a reasonable step, but this should also be allowed for areas where a place of worship expands if such should happen. Such could proceed after study to see whether this should be universal across all zones or be selective. I, for one, would argue that it would be fully consistent within the Arts overlay, for example.

by Lindsley Williams on Jun 16, 2013 7:43 am • linkreport

Has there ever been serious discussion about building/investing in a theater district? I know it sounds like a crazy idea but why not? It can't all be retail with condo underneath next to office building.

by Ben on Jun 16, 2013 3:16 pm • linkreport

Ben, DC has established such a district 2 blocks from where this theater is located. It's the 14th Street Arts Overlay which was established in the 90s to help focus the theater community into a specific 'go to' destination for theater goers. It supplemented this with various assistance including direct intervention such as when DC bought the Lincoln Theater and heavily subsidizing the buy out of the Source Theater building by the theater companies using it. I understand it also works to encourage establishment of other theatre there in other ways. However there's been increasing pressure in that 14th and U corridor to take away from the theatre space and give it to restaurants. When the district was established there were no non fast food restaurants there. By around 10 years ago there were enough there that a 25% street frontage limit had been established. And within the last couple years that was expanded to 50%. Liquor serving establishments are very profitable and they push up the rents in whichever districts they are allowed (unless there's a moratorium). The theater in question here is paying roughly $20,000 a year in rent. That's less than many people in the area pay for a small 700 sq ft one bedroom apartment. Why would thar theater have wanted to locate in the designated theater district 2 blocks away when it could instead locate in a residential zone where there are no other commercial establishments competing with it for space? It wouldn't.

by A neighbor on Jun 16, 2013 5:20 pm • linkreport

A neighbor's information is partially right: there is an arts overlay district up 14th and across U. But the remark: " I understand it also works to encourage establishment of other theatre there in other ways," unfortunately demonstrates the wishful thinking behind the zoning designation. The zoning in fact does not work to encourage anything. It is simply an empty designation.

The zoning has no teeth in encouraging arts use or penalizing use that ignores the arts. Whereas downtown, stiff arts use requirements allowed for Woolly Mammoth and the Harman Center to come into existence (amassing the required arts-use square footage from their surrounding areas), in the 14th and U zone there are no actual requirements. Thus, there are no new theaters or arts uses coming. Just restaurants that can pay the mega-rent.

by theater guy on Jun 16, 2013 6:06 pm • linkreport

Some years back I was told by the then ANC commissioner from ANC 2B whose SMD was on 14th that the District offered grants and low interest loans and other assistance. But I can understand that no amount of loan subsidization is going to be able to compete with what residential sq footage rents for vs. commercial square footage. Theaters wanting an automatic exception for locating in a residential zone are wanting it for the same reason embassies want it (and have it.). Space is a lot cheaper when your only competition is residents.

by A neighbor on Jun 16, 2013 6:16 pm • linkreport

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