On June 12, 2012, two days after winning the Tony, the STC began legal proceedings against its longtime landlords in the Lansburgh Building. The case was publicized as a spat over rent: The troupe had been paying $70,000 annually for its 450-seat facility, and suddenly the Lansburgh officials were demanding $480,000.
Yet the case, which remains unsettled after a year of court proceedings and negotiations, is not a simple financial dispute. Instead, the Shakespeare Theatre continues to wrangle with Graham Gund, the owner-developer of the upscale Lansburgh apartment complex on Seventh and E streets NW — a reversal from 20 years ago when Gund and the arts group were ballyhooed partners.
That match between the commercial developer and the growing nonprofit theater company was brokered by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. From the late 1970s through the 1990s, new restaurants, residences and retail were sparked by visionary PADC, which was given wide powers by Congress in 1972.
Pivotal to the urban resurgence in Penn Quarter, by all accounts, was the STC’s risky but triumphant 1991 move from the Folger Shakespeare Library into the new Lansburgh complex at Seventh and E. That arrangement required the developer to reserve a portion of the new upscale apartment complex as a “community arts space.”
A conspicuous PADC goal was “to stimulate arts uses,” recalls longtime Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, “which makes total sense in terms of urban development.”
Cut, then, to 2013. Shalwitz describes the STC-Lansburgh case “a big deal,” one that raises an unsettling question: “What makes it possible for that subsidy [from the developers] to stay intact?”
Like the STC, Woolly now performs on a stage created by PADC initiatives. Unlike the STC, Woolly has had happy news this year: the purchase, in May, of the 265-seat facility it has occupied since 2005, a basement space beneath a new apartment complex on the last remaining PADC parcel. The price is undisclosed, but Woolly Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann has described it as “insanely generous.”
What happened at the Lansburgh? Did the STC’s widely applauded PADC deal expire? When public agencies work with commercial developers to carve out city space for nonprofit arts groups, are the agreements built to last?
The classical STC and the new-plays troupe Woolly are pillars of Washington culture, and leaders on the nation’s theater scene. Their contrasting adventures in real estate offer a high-stakes lesson not just in major arts management but in sustained urban planning.
“People don’t remember that this was still frontier downtown,” says Richard Hauser, who chaired PADC from 1986 until the agency wound down and was absorbed by the General Services Administration in 1998. “The Shakespeare was nervous to come [to the Lansburgh]. To have them move to that site was like a stamp of approval and legitimacy.”