Small theater company Pinky Swear Productions got some very sudden and frightening news yesterday: Their show Killing Women, which opened in a Dupont church basement on Saturday, may have to suddenly find a new location, as the zoning regulations prohibit theater in that space.
Update: Pinky Swear says they’ve gotten permission to finish the run of their show and won’t have to move.
A resident complained about the production, and zoning officials said that the church, at 16th and S Streets NW, would need a zoning variance to hold performances, according to Andrew Huff in Councilmember Jack Evans’ office. DCRA sent an inspector this morning to review the issue; we will report the results when they are available.
Fortunately, Capital Fringe has offered space at 6th and New York Avenue NW if Killing Women has to leave the church, though moving will surely harm Pinky Swear financially. According to co-artistic director Karen Lange, the set won’t fit in the new space, moving would force them to cancel a few shows, cost more money for lighting rental, and more.
According to Lange, Pinky Swear is renting the space from Spooky Action Theater, which has a lease for the basement. A resident who lives nearby notes that Spooky Action hasn’t been holding productions in the church for a while, which is why this issue is just arising now. Also, he said that the theater groups have been using the narrow alley, adjacent to homes, as the entrance rather than the front door of the church on 16th Street.
The policy question here is, are our zoning rules too restrictive?
On the one hand, zoning creates some predictability. Residents right near the church know to expect a lot of activity on Sunday mornings but not nighttime performances. Audiences coming out of theaters can sometimes be noisy, and could disturb people. That’s especially true if they’re using a back door adjacent to homes rather than a front door.
On the other hand, having more arts events contributes to a much richer city. Groups like Pinky Swear are small, have little money, and can’t afford spaces in places like downtown. Established theaters have theater companies that already use those spaces most of the time. If our zoning keeps the arts corralled into a very narrow range of opportunities, that limits it tremendously, especially for young and emerging artists.
Any zoning changes take tremendous time and money. A developer of a large building can afford to do this, but a small theater company or church can’t possibly do it just to put on a play.
There are significant parallels between this case and the recent regulatory disputes around secondhand stores and the car service Uber.
Uber was doing something new and innovative which the existing regulations didn’t precisely predict. Their model might or might not have been legal under the regulations, depending how you interpret it. The Taxicab Commission decided that they were breaking the rules, and came down hard.
Used bookstores, vintage clothing shops, and more operated for years under a general retail license, but recently DC officials determined that they actually have to use a different license that mainly covered pawn shops. That license is much more expensive, and requires far more detailed reporting requirements, which made sense for pawn shops to avoid stolen merchandise but is less applicable to stores which buy used goods from distant wholesalers.
In all 3 cases, one can make a case that DC needs to enforce the rules as written. Should we really turn a blind eye to unlawful behavior? If so, how do we decide which unlawful behavior to ignore?
On the other hand, bending zoning rules has sometimes brought tremendously positive results. In many of the warehouse districts of older industrial cities, for instance, revitalization began when people moved into the vacant spaces and started living there. Often, though, they weren’t zoned for residential. As New York’s Soho became a popular loft space, for many years all of the residents were breaking the zoning rules.
In this case, the zoning code could be more permissive toward arts uses. Arts performance could be one of the “corner store” type uses that can locate in residential zones subject to various restrictions, as I previously suggested. The new code could also allow arts uses in residential zones under a “special exception” rather than a variance, which still requires a long and complex process before the Board of Zoning Adjustment, but lets the BZA grant permission more easily.
For cities to thrive, neighborhoods need to evolve as the desires of their residents changes over time. Zoning can rarely keep up. The best thing we can do is err on the side of more flexibility and fewer regulations.