Author’s Note: This is part two of a series on the redevelopment of the old Southeastern University site in Southwest. These articles will serve to provide information for the greater community, and not to take a side on the development debate.
Last month this series began by focusing on members of the community who, for various reasons, are not supporters of the current mixed-use proposed project that will be built on the old Southeastern University (SEU) site, officially located at 6th and I Streets SW. The Shakespeare Theater Company (STC), in partnership with Erkiletian Construction Corporation, acquired the nearly one-acre site for $6.5 million in May of 2014. STC was looking for 10 years to consolidate its current administrative offices, costume shop, rehearsal studios, and actor apartments. About 75 employees will be working from this site. Erkiletian was brought in as a partner to build the attached but separately operated nine-story (eight plus a penthouse) high-rise, 173-unit residential portion of this project. Officially, the combination of the STC offices and rehearsal studios and the high-rise residential tower is the mixed-use project called “The Bard.”
For the second portion of this series, a focus was placed on speaking with members of the STC community and Erkiletian. However, the scheduled in-person interview did not occur, and all questions were answered via email only by managing director Chris Jennings.
The most common concern from the immediate neighbors continues to be the height of the proposed building in relation to the immediate surrounding area, particularly the townhomes and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School. In the current rendering, the building will range from three stories at its shortest point to nine stories at its tallest. Jennings informed The Southwester that the design is still evolving, with the design team currently working on its sixth design, and that they continue to take the concerns of the neighbors seriously. Each new design, Jennings said, reflects “compromises, height reductions and a significant reduction in massing.” These changes are a direct response to community comments and concerns, and, Jennings hopes, is a strong basis for the trust that will be needed as this project continues.
The word “trust” is mentioned in reference to this development quite frequently, by all involved. In fact, in an Aug. 21 Washington City Paper article, Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6) is quoted as saying that the parties must “trust each other.” Otherwise, he says “there isn’t a path forward.” For many neighbors and community members, the distrust is related to their perception of lack of outreach to and communication with not only the local residents, but also the larger community. Neighbors also noted that the extensive studies that the development team has done have not been released and, as was highlighted in the first portion of this series, none of the social media or website pages from The Bard include the information about the height of the building, nor that a zoning change needs to happen. Others are uncomfortable with the fact that STC has not been forthcoming with the information that this will be a mixed-use project. Jennings disagreed with this notion saying that STC is “being forthright about what we want to do with the Bard and the benefits it can bring to the community.” As for community outreach, Jennings says they have received more than 3,000 emails, calls, and postcards sent in to support the project, though there was no further clarification on who the senders were, or even where they reside. This outcome is a direct result, he says, of the telephone town halls, in-person meetings with immediate neighbors, and larger community meetings at Arena Stage. It is unclear going forward whether STC will change its tactics or not continue the flow of information and communication with the community.
It has been expressed by many neighbors who may not support The Bard development, that they do support STC and understand the desire, and need, to consolidate the STC office space. What was not understood, however, was the partnership with a for-profit business to create this mixed-use development, and why a capital campaign was not created in order to fund this project. The Bard is seen by STC, according to Jennings, as an “extension” of STC so that the company “can build on our history and secure our future.” Later in the interview, when asked why a capital campaign or the like was not utilized to fund this effort, Jennings highlighted the fact this project will, in fact, need both the capital campaign and the mixed-use development. He said, “(P)artnering with Erkiletian is helping us to reduce costs, but the Bard still requires a major capital campaign in addition to the significant fundraising we already do to enable our commitment to providing high-caliber classic theatre productions and enriching educational experiences.” Jennings noted that this development would continue to provide not only the facilities, but also the cost savings, by owning and not renting, which are needed to continue its work as a major arts institution in the DC area and also one of the country’s leading professional theaters.
One of the most common themes that STC repeats relates to the community benefits that will further enhance the neighborhood. During some of the few community meetings, a member of the STC staff always highlights the educational offerings such as camps and classes that will be offered to Southwest when The Bard comes to the area. When asked what else this project would add to not only Southwest DC, but also to the greater DC community, Mr. Jennings said, “STC and Erkiletian agree with Councilmember Allen that this project has immense potential for Southwest and would add to the growing cultural hub in the area.” He continued, “(O)ur goal is to be an active partner in the community, adding value to it. STC hopes to bring cultural and artistic resources and that will enhance and benefit the entire community. We’re already exploring how we can work with the community to provide programming support to the Southwest Duck Pond and artistic activities for the nearby schools, Amidon-Bowen Elementary and Jefferson Academy Middle. The Bard would also give STC the facilities and cost savings it needs to continue its work as one of D.C.’s major arts institutions and one of the country’s leading professional theatres.” Whereas the community benefits of this deal are much welcomed by the Southwest community, others have commented that these additions to the schools and the Southwest Duck Pond would happen regardless of STC coming to Southwest.
As for the future of this project, there are some hurdles, and a tight timetable for STC and Erkiletian to overcome in order to begin the next phase of The Bard. The primary hurdle is the need for rezoning of the property, as it is currently zoned to be “R-3,” which according to DC zoning regulations means that this specific parcel of land is currently zoned for only single family homes, a church, or a school. In mid-July, the DC City Council adopted the Southwest Small Area Plan, and recommended that land-use designation not be changed until the developers could “address community concerns.” This recommendation has led many to question what STC would do if the land were not rezoned. The answer Jennings gave: “STC purchased this site and intends- as is urgently required- to develop a viable home for its operations.” A timeline for the project was asked for in order to help with this article, but one was not provided. Jennings did point out, however, that they are focused on community engagement at this time, and the project needs to move forward “urgently” as STC is facing leases that will expire in June 2016.
For the immediate future, though, it seems that many of the specifics are still undecided. With a Planned Unit Development still not public at the time of printing, and the need to re-zone the parcel of land, it will be some time before the Zoning Commission gives the go-ahead to this project, if it ever does. The Southwester will continue to follow this story over the coming months.
By: Katelynd Mahoney
SWNA Fundraising Chair