Opening of Anacostia Playhouse delayed

March 19, 2013

The Anacostia Playhouse, originally slated to open as early as mid-March, is probably going to be mired in parking-permit purgatory at least until the end of April, if not the end of the summer.

Here’s what happened at 2020 Shannon Place: The Anacostia Playhouse is the new home of the former H Street Playhouse, which was forced out of its Northeast D.C. location last summer. Rising rent left the 10-year-old theater and its owner, Adele Robey, in search of a new location. She found a space across the river and announced plans to turn what was then a warehouse into a theater by spring 2013.

The Anacostia Playhouse is required by law to have 15 parking spaces on site. The parking lot it planned to use is across a 20-foot alley from the Anacostia Playhouse lot. Because of that alley, the lot is considered “off-site parking,” so, by definition, the parking spots on that lot can’t count toward the minimum “on-site” parking requirements.

Until the Anacostia Playhouse can secure a variance that would put them in compliance with the zoning laws, construction must be halted.

“We thought we had satisfied [the requirement] with the 15 spots we had,” said Robey, now Anacostia Playhouse’s CEO. She also said that “everybody, everywhere, recognized that it was a technicality, basically, and the whole thing was going to hold up our building.”

“We’ve been working very closely with them to try to expedite the entire process,” said Helder Gil, public information officer at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. “But our hands are tied due to the zoning regulations. But if the Board is okay with them using the adjacent lot for parking and issues the variance . . . we’re ready to issue the building permit.”

Robey and her daughter, managing director Julia Robey Christian, will probably have a hearing with the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment on April 23. Assuming they can get a bench decision that day — as opposed to waiting weeks or months for one — Christian said they will start building as early as April 24. Theater Alliance was supposed to be loading in and performing “Broke-ology” in May and June; the new plan is for the show to load in at the beginning of August and perform through the end of September.

That’s tricky, too, because Theater Alliance received a grant from the D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities to produce work east of the river. “We have to spend all the money by September, or we have to give it back,” Christian said.

Though the Anacostia Playhouse has, in its lease, six months free for the building time with a two-month cushion for delays, this was not a problem that Robey or Christian anticipated. “My sense is [our landlord] will not really try to hold us to that because they know the bind we’re in,” Robey said. “But the worst-case scenario is, we’ll be in default of the lease and they can take the building back.”

One ironic twist that will maybe be funny in several years if/when things work out but right now, probably not so much, is that “the zoning regulations are currently being rewritten and this is one of the issues that would be dealt with,” Gil said. “It would be amended to allow for exactly this situation.”

Robey said: “This could not even be a law by the time we get anywhere with this.”

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