Great spot for a theater. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Smaller theaters that don’t own buildings of their own are having trouble finding places to rent. Can DC’s zoning update help fix this?

Nelson Pressley writes in the Post about numerous theater troupes which have outgrown their existing spaces, or are losing their spaces. With heavy demand for office and residential space in DC, there aren’t a lot of affordable places to rent that can fit the performing arts.

It would make perfect sense for the arts to expand east of the Anacostia River and to other underserved parts of DC where space is cheaper. An arts space, the Anacostia Playhouse, is even working to open in Anacostia, though it’s faced delays including some from parking minimums.

Pressley talks about a few groups which found unconventional spaces, like Spooky Action Theater, which uses a church basement on 16th Street in Dupont. But Spooky Action had to seek a zoning variance to keep performing in the church basement, which is very difficult to get; DC’s Office of Planning could change this to an easier “special exception” to foster more performing arts.

Arts performances are not a by-right use in a residential area or in a religious building in a residential area. A variance, however, sets high hurdles for anyone seeking one; you have to prove that not getting the variance presents “exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship” on the property owner.

Neighbors had some concerns about where audience members would congregate before shows and during intermission, but ultimately the theater did get its variance with support from the Dupont Circle ANC. The theater and church agreed not to allow any audience members to use the rear alley entrance of the church, so that any noise would be on 16th Street rather than near the rear neighbors’ houses.

In its report, the DC Office of Planning said that it couldn’t conclude that the need for a theater rose to the level of “exceptional practical difficulties or exceptional and undue hardship,” but the Board of Zoning Adjustment ultimately decided that since the church is having financial struggles, its need to rent out its basement is exceptional enough.

But why should this be necessary? If another church, perhaps one in strong financial shape, wants to rent out a basement to the performing arts, and if they can ensure it doesn’t unduly harm neighbors, isn’t this a win-win for everyone? Unfortunately, the zoning rules make such a beneficial arrangement extremely difficult.

The DC Office of Planning could solve this problem by simply switching performing arts to a “special exception” standard, which is much lower. Under a special exception, the zoning board simply must determine that a use doesn’t harm the public good, but there need not be some “exceptional” circumstance. For example, you can locate a home daycare in a residential zone, but have to get a special exception. The same could apply to a theater.

I live in a residential zone, and there happens to be a theater on my own block. It’s a great asset, not a detriment. Theaters won’t be able to afford to rent spaces in busy commercial zones when they’re competing with restaurants and furniture stores. We can let them use other spaces nearby, spaces not open to retailers, and help the arts while enriching our neighborhoods with fun and culture.

(And go see a show at Spooky Action, or my neighbor the Keegan, or the Studio, Woolly Mammoth, or any of the other great theater groups in DC that put on interesting plays that are new and/or low-cost. There’s a lot more to arts besides the Kennedy Center and Shakespeare!)

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.