The sparkly new community center that has been growing for the past three years in Southeast contains a lot of things you would never dream of putting together. For example, a gymnasium and an animatronic Frederick Douglass. A ballet studio and a children's health care center. A state-of-the-art theater and a playground. A middle school for girls and an intake center for homeless youth. An art gallery and a recording studio. Community meeting rooms and music rehearsal space.
It would be a big deal even if it were just the theater; there aren't any other theaters east of the Anacostia River. But this one has a floating floor to lessen the impact on ballerinas' feet, a rising orchestra pit and $2 movies once in a while.
The Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus (THEARC), a $26.5 million center housing all of the above and then some, recently finished moving its resident programs into the 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE facility. A gala celebration Oct. 8, attended by lots of local politicians, celebrated the center's fully operational status after years in the making.
Developer Chris Smith, chief executive of William C. Smith & Co., originally planned a smaller building on the site across from his Villages of Parklands, a 1,400-unit housing development. The idea was to build a $3 million community center with a gym. His company founded a nonprofit group, Building Bridges Across the River, to manage the operation.
Then other program providers started asking for space. The result: "Never before have the communities on the other side of the Anacostia River had access to anything approaching this kind of consortium of cultural and recreational facilities," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told a House Appropriations subcommittee.
Geared toward the underprivileged residents of Washington, the partners housed in the complex are nonprofit. None pay rent, although they do pay for utilities and maintenance. The site is on National Park land with a ground lease of 99 years. Building Bridges Across the River raised the money for construction through government funds and corporate and private donations.
THEARC hosted Turner Elementary's graduation in June. "We finally have an auditorium where we can do something," said Constance Thomas, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8B. "Just to have someplace nice to drive and park without double- and triple-parking, to sit down in seats large enough for the largest parent. . . . It was just a nice event."
None of the initial investors is seeking repayment in a financial sense, said Executive Director Skip McMahon. "We all gain," he said. "We are trying to put to rest the negative image of this part of the city."