Backstage: Keegan faces real legal drama over the zoning for its Dupont Circle building


A rendering of the new front elevation design for the Keegan Theatre in Northwest Washington. Before the troupe can proceed with a $1.5 million renovation and expansion of the building, Keegan needs a variance to operate as a theater in a residential zoning district. (Stoiber & Associates Architects)
March 11

The Keegan Theatre company is no stranger to courtroom scenes. The small, semiprofessional theater troupe based in Dupont Circle has successfully staged “A Few Good Men” and “12 Angry Men” in recent years. But this season, the theater is unexpectedly starring in a legal drama of its own.

Our stage is set at the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustments. The expository details are a bit pedantic, but the major plotline leaves plenty at stake: According to court documents, theater companies have been illegally operating out of the building for more than 30 years.

The discrepancy between the building’s use and the property’s zoning came to light only late last year, when the theater began pursuing permits for a $1.5 million renovation and expansion project. Before it can proceed with the plans, Keegan needs a variance to operate as a theater in a residentially zoned district.

A firm date has not been set, but Keegan had long planned to break ground on the expansion project this spring. Rebecca Griffith, an architect with Stoiber & Associates, applied for a building permit in January. She had hoped the theater would be issued the permit without the variance. It appears that is not going to happen.

A spokesman for city zoning administrator Matthew LeGrant said the theater cannot receive a permit unless the variance is granted.

The theater was set to have its case heard Tuesday, but requested that the hearing be postponed. The new hearing date is May 6. In late April, the city’s Office of Planning will issue its own report, and recommend that the board either reject or approve the request.

In legal documents that Keegan has submitted, the theater argues that it should receive the variance because the property is listed as a “theater” in city tax records and because the present certificate of occupancy permit, issued in 1996, lists the building’s use as a “School of Theater Arts, (Production Classes Workshop).”

But as anyone who has attended a performance at Keegan has probably noticed, the building has a cramped lobby and barely enough space for two bathrooms in its dingy basement. You could argue that it functions as a school only when it is staging the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The three-story brick building was constructed in the early 1900s and was originally a gym for the Holton-Arms School, which is now in Bethesda. Since 1975, a succession of companies — some defunct, some still operating — have used the space, including New Playwrights, Synetic, Forum and Scena theaters. Keegan has been leasing the building since 2005.

In 2012, Keegan began meeting with Stoiber & Associates to discuss doing something about the bathrooms. At every intermission, performers rush to use one of the two toilets before patrons do, and if there is a full house, more than 100 people may need to use the facilities.

At that point, an anonymous donor came forward with an offer to help buy the building, which would allow the theater to do more than just add toilets. Keegan announced the purchase in May 2013 and subsequently launched its “In Good Company” campaign with a goal of raising another $2 million toward design, construction and debt-repayment costs. (The theater has already taken out a $900,000 loan for the project.)

Stoiber’s schematics call for bumping out the building’s east side and adding a three- story glass vestibule with a new entrance. The current lobby would be enlarged, and classroom and storage spaces would be added. New heating and air-conditioning systems would keep patrons more comfortable and perhaps even lower utility bills. The entire building would comply with rules for access to those with disabilities; the theater seating also would be reconfigured to allow patrons about three more inches of legroom.

This news was met with cheers in January, when Keegan held a community open house to update neighbors, actors and patrons on the project. Architect Jeff Stoiber briefed attendees on the plans, saying he had “rarely seen a project with so much community support.”

The zoning issue was not publicly discussed, although some attendees discreetly gave Artistic Director Mark Rhea and the architects signed statements voicing support for the theater. Those will be submitted to the zoning board.

Speaking after the January meeting, Kishan Putta of the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission said the architect’s assertion is “not entirely true,” and that many neighbors are concerned about how disruptive Keegan’s construction project — with a target end date of “Winter 2014” that now seems unlikely — will be to the quiet, residential side street with limited parking.

Putta also said he would like to see the theater tone down the lighting. Although architects have darkened some of the glass for the proposed three-story see-through vestibule, it may still cast a glow more suited for Connecticut Avenue.

The company’s offerings vary, perhaps more than any other theater in Washington. Keegan is reviving the rock musical “Hair.” In May, the company will host two rotating-rep Northern Irish plays, then shut down for construction, if all goes according to plan.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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