"9TH STREET CROSSINGS" won't be taking place on Ninth Street, unfortunately. When District Curators Inc. "9 announced in late June that it was taking over the lease of the 400-seat Gayety Theatre at 508 Ninth St. and turning it into the largest experimental theater project in Washington, the move was hailed by city officials and arts representatives as a "significant step in the downtown arts revival." Money was pledged, the "Crossings" program under the auspices of the WPAS was announced, and it looked as if the Gayety would join the LaDroit, Lansburgh and Atlantis buildings as vivid symbols of renewed downtown development. Then the whole deal fell victim to real estate reality.
For several years, the Gayety had been leased to Xero Productions, which used the decaying theater as an adult film house. District Curators, a nonprofit arts organization which had presented numerous concerts around town, had been eyeing the property for some time even though it knew the entire area was subject to rebuilding under the Pennsylvania Avenue Redevelopment Plan. The Gayety offered a site for two or three years, admittedly impermanent, but long enough for the organization to establish itself, according to Curators president Bill Warrell.
As a result, District Curators bought Xero Productions and assumed the remainder of its five-year lease. When word of this reached the property's owner, Herb Rothberg, he immediately vetoed the deal, saying that plans for the New Gayety constituted "inappropriate use " of the property. What is curious is that Rothberg (who owns Central Liquor, the city's largest liquor outlet, as well as other Ninth Street properties) is the brother-in-law of Xero Productions' Herb Cole.
Rothberg said the first he knew of the deal was when he read about it in The Washington Post. John Bowers, a Realtor who worked with District Curators, disputes that, saying he had contacted Rothberg as early as September 1980 concerning the property. "The idea of a straight theater in the neighborhood seemed appealing to him," Bowers says. Adds Warrell, "I never thought the deal would have to go back for Rothberg's approval." Warrell says he understood that Cole was losing money with the theater and was eager to get out of his lease. When Rothberg's notice came back with the uncanceled $15,000 deposit check, "we were freaked."
However, Rothberg claims he was unaware of negotiations between Cole and Warrell; his lawyer, Lou Robbins, insists that Rothberg "hasn't made up his mind what he wants to do with the property" because of market conditions, interest rates and the general state of the economy, and that nixing the deal was purely "a business decision." Parking for Central Liquor is currently across the street on property that may figure in the area's redevelopment plans; should the redevelopment occur, Rothberg would need the Gayety land, which he could also use to expand his business. Regardless, the land is private property and Robbins has said that Rothberg doesn't feel that "he has to explain his position" but that he "wouldn't have felt right" having to turn out an arts organization that might have established itself in the location.
Part of Rothberg's caution may have been inspired by preservationist actions elsewhere in Washington, most notably at the Rhodes Tavern. (Ironically, that property's developer, Oliver T. Carr, was on the board of the New Gayety Theatre.) Warrell insists that his organization was always aware of the possible (and expected) destruction of the theater; the lease had a six-month notice to vacate for demolition. Bowers says he assured Rothberg and Robbins that Don't Tear It Down, the preservationist organization, had no interest in any building on the block and even offered to put up a bond to ensure that no stalling tactics would be applied at the Gayety should it be forced to vacate before the expiration of the lease. As one observer pointed out, "Rothberg wanted to control his corner. There's a tremendous real estate development potential there."
District Curators had raised more than $30,000 of the needed $150,000 to pay off the lease and purchase projectors, sound and light systems and new seats. Warrell says that less than $20,000 would have been put into the building; the rest was for equipment that could have been moved to a future, more permanent, location. The steering committee (which included Mayor Marion Barry and his adviser for cultural affairs, Mildred Bautista, as well as representatives from a number of arts organizations) was helpless to intervene. Patrick Hayes, director of the WPAS, told Art Ink recently, "The idea is wonderful. That hasn't changed. But we don't have control over a private building. It's a risk you take when you rent."
Several other sites have been suggested, including a warehouse on New York Avenue and the restored Mount Vernon Square Library, originally slated to be the administrative offices for the University of the District of Columbia and now in limbo. "9th Street Crossings" was fortunate to have been able to switch to alternate locations, but the affair has left frustration and anger among those who sought to expand downtown arts development.