U Street Develops Vision for Theater

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

The District announced yesterday that it is seeking to develop land adjoining the historic Lincoln Theatre, a U Street institution that would receive much-needed financial assistance from the project.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) invited developers to submit proposals for the District-owned site, two neighboring parcels behind the theater that are large enough for an eight- or nine-story building, and underground parking.

"The Lincoln Theatre has an incredible history and great potential," Fenty said in a statement. "This is a perfect example of what we can do when we leverage our assets to get better amenities for our neighborhoods."

The site is suitable for a boutique hotel, an apartment building or offices. District officials prefer an office building, they said, because it would generate more annual tax revenue, a portion of which would be funneled to the city-owned theater. But city officials have not decided whether to sell or lease the land to a developer.

After its 1922 opening, the Lincoln soon became a showcase for African American performers on U Street. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were among the stars who packed the theater's 1,200 seats.

The theater's decline began in the 1960s, after desegregation allowed blacks to migrate to new neighborhoods and the 1968 riots ravaged U Street. The Lincoln closed in 1984 and reopened a decade later as part of the District's quest to rebuild the corridor.

The theater has teetered on financial collapse in recent years, even as the District has provided annual funding, including $1.5 million for capital improvements.

In January 2007, the not-for-profit foundation that manages the Lincoln reported that it would have to close unless it received more financial help. A few days later, the District Council voted to give the theater $200,000.

Derrick Woody, a District planning official overseeing the Lincoln project, said the theater's financial situation is "better," though he added that "there's room for improvement."

Without the development project, he said, "we'd have to continue to search for funding in the annual budget."

Janice Hill, the theater's executive director, said that the revenue generated by the project should allow the Lincoln to continue staging programs that benefit the community, including dance and theater programs that are offered for free to public school students.

"We're able to maintain our community profile and sustain commercial efforts," she said.

The deadline for submitting development proposals for the theater is July 18.

The District also announced yesterday that it reached an agreement with Howard University to trade land parcels.

Under the terms of the deal, which was approved by the D.C. Council in 2006, the District is giving Howard the Bond Bread building in the 2100 block of Georgia Avenue NW. The university will use the site to build the Howard Town Center, a mix of housing and retail, including a supermarket.

The university is giving the District a parcel at Florida and Sherman avenues. The District plans to solicit a developer to construct a mix of offices, retail and 300 housing units, a third of which would be affordable.

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