D.C. Fringe Festival’s move puts it in the middle of burgeoning Atlas District


Capital Fringe leased a new building at 1358-1360 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC on June 26, 2014. These are the plans for renovation of the building. First Floor. (Stoiber+Associates/Capital Fringe/Stoiber+Associates/Capital Fringe)

For years, Capital Fringe has been able to plant its flag on New York Avenue thanks to a favorable rental agreement on a block where redevelopment has long been expected. The arrangement was never going to last forever.

That’s why founder and chief executive Julianne Brienza has been scouting D.C. for property for nearly three years, and why Fringe is jumping at the chance to purchase the Connersmith gallery building in Trinidad. The spot strikes Brienza as a natural fit.

For starters, the location — 1358 Florida Ave. NE — is just a block north of the emerging H Street corridor and a two-minute walk from the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The area features a cultural hub, new bars and restaurants, foot traffic, and a trolley is slated to toddle up and down the strip sooner or later.

In other words, there’s a scene.

“There is a lot of positive energy to plug into, and not have to wait 10 or 20 years to be part of the fruition,” Brienza says.

Then there is the two-story building itself, a former auto-repair garage that Connersmith bought and converted in 2007. It’s wide and airy, with ceilings 15 feet high. There is an open courtyard on the east side, where Fringe can replicate a version of its popular Baldacchino Tent. There is also a sloped driveway inside, an artifact from the space’s garage days. Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith, co-owners of Connersmith, retained that, but Fringe might not.

“Artists had a field day,” Conner says of the gallery, “doing large-scale things and just going for it.” In a changing art world that’s increasingly reliant on fairs and technology, though, Connersmith doesn’t need all the space. Conner says, “Our footprint needs to be about [2,000] to 3,000 square feet, while our digital footprint is getting larger.”

Early Fringe plans for the building suggest three small theaters upstairs and a scene shop in the back, plus a beer garden. The idea is to be active all the time.

“We will be completely year-round the moment the space is done being built out,” Brienza says.

The preliminary schedule is to base the festival in the Florida Avenue building next summer, then enter a nine-month construction phase. The launch of the renovated building would be May 2016.

Everything is moving fast, and there is money to raise to clinch the deal. The $9.2 million that Fringe is targeting covers the undisclosed purchase price and includes the earliest estimates for build out costs as well as a cushion for operating expenses, according to Sam Sweet, who is leading the capital campaign.

“The big problem cultural organizations always face is getting into the space and finding out the operating costs are greater than they thought they would be,” says Sweet, former executive director of the Atlas until his three-year contract expired this spring. Sweet was managing director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre as it expanded into its current two-theater complex, and he thinks that move and Fringe’s position are comparable.

“That was a small organization that had a strong leader and a clear mission, and had an opportunity to take a big next step,” he says. Fringe may be in a better starting position, Sweet thinks, but its timetable is compressed. The fundraising, he says, “needs to be brought up to speed very quickly.”

If things go according to plan, the chapter will be closed soon on most of the venues around Fort Fringe. Or maybe not: until the deal is finalized in October, and until redevelopment actually begins at the New York Avenue location, anything could happen. Maybe these stages will still be online, or maybe Fringe will be deeper into establishing a new network of partners in Trinidad and beyond.

“Next year, who knows?” Fringe production manager Austin Byrd says, regarding what the galaxy of venues might be. Brienza, asked if next year’s festival will have to be smaller on Florida Avenue, says, “Absolutely not.”

“The Fort is really run down, but people really love it here,” Brienza says. “So we’re trying to continue that. We’re not trying to build a fancy space [in Trinidad]. We’re trying to keep it pretty basic.”

Capital Fringe Festival

July 10-27, in multiple venues. Box office at 607 New York Ave. NW. Tickets $17, and Fringe Button required ($5 until July 10, $7 from July 11). Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.capitalfringe.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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