On Wednesday evening, the Rock Creek Property Group opened the newly renovated Takoma Theatre building to the public for an Open House tour. Immediately following the tour, the ANC 4B Community Design Review Committee met next door to consider a zoning exception request that was submitted to the Board of Zoning Adjustment. I’ll provide some background on the theatre, then jump into the meat of the developer’s request.
Historic Takoma Theatre
The Takoma Theatre opened in 1923. It was designed by John Jacob Zink, who went on to design the famous Uptown Theatre on Connecticut Avenue NW and many other theatres throughout the country. It is located at 6833 4th Street NW.
The building served as a movie theatre for most of its working life. According to this article, it was one of the first theatres in the area with a sound system to play “talking movies”. The theatre’s programming changed to live performances in the ‘80s, and was highlighted by a recording of comedian Chris Rock’s Emmy Award-Winning HBO Special Bring the Pain.
After a long community battle with the building’s previous owner, the Rock Creek Property Group purchased the building in 2015. At the time, Rock Creek Principal Gary Schlager stated, “We have worked with many historic structures around the city and have developed a niche creating wonderful, unique spaces where we blend historic charm with new, modern base-building improvements and interiors. Our plans are to reposition the asset as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for office, retail and entertainment uses. More and more tenants today want unique work spaces for their staffs and businesses.”
Our plans are to reposition the asset as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for office, retail and entertainment uses.
The building was in poor physical condition, with a leaking roof, and out-dated subsystems. Over a two year period, the Rock Creek Property Group team repaired the historically protected exterior of the building, while gutting most of the interior and adding a second floor. Here are some photos from yesterday’s tour:
The interior will be designed to suit the incoming tenants. So far, it appears that the team has done a fantastic job maintaining the integrity of the historic nature of the building, while opening a clean palette for a modern design inside.
The Zoning Issue
As I mentioned, after the tour, the ANC 4B Community Design Review Committee met next door in the Takoma Village community room to discuss the pending zoning concern for the theater. After an exhaustive, two-year search, the developer had not been able to locate a retail client that was willing to commit to such a large (23,000 sf) building in this location. Instead, they have a preliminary agreement with Children’s Hospital to open a world-class outpatient brain treatment clinic. The outpatient facility will provide services for the following uses:
- Hearing and Speech
- Behavioral Medicine
- Developmental Medicine
This sounds great! Win-win for everyone, right? The problem is that Children’s proposed use requires a “special exception” (not a variance) to the existing zoning template, which requires the building to be 50% retail. In order to make the outpatient clinic work, the developer would like to reduce the amount of retail space required to just 900 sf (indicated below, in the lower left corner).
Competing Vision for the Neighborhood
ANC Commissioner Tanya Topelewski (SMD 4B02), who is a professional real estate developer herself, spoke eloquently about how this requested change would impact future development of the immediate neighborhood. She effectively outlined how all four corners of the intersection of Butternut Street NW and 4th Street NW are likely to be filled with retail in the not-so-distant future.
She said, “My concern is that retail needs to have a certain critical mass (to be successful). You need a certain amount of square footage to come together and you need it to be contiguous. What they (the developer) are asking to do is to take away a good chunk of the actual amount of square footage that will be here on this corner. That I see as a risk for the long term health of this area as begin a really viable, vibrant retail area in the future (which is in the zoning plan).”
I see that as a risk for the long term health of this area as begin a really viable, vibrant retail area in the future.
She went on to praise the developer’s work so far, and stated that the tradeoff for what the developer is asking is a pretty big question for the community to ponder.
Committee member David Hamilton, an architect by trade, took a different view. He said, “In terms of what (the developers) have proposed for the Takoma Theatre, I think they’ve done an incredibly good job of adaptive reuse of the building. The only issue I have is proposing to put the retail (on the right side of the lobby). It should be (on the left side). I don’t mind the reduction for retail as long as it’s located (in the corner space).
In terms of what (the developers) have proposed for the Takoma Theatre, I think they’ve done an incredibly good job of adaptive reuse of the building.
Surprisingly to me, many of the members of the audience seemed to favor Mr. Hamilton’s position. There were questions about how much the Children’s clinic would help to activate the retail shops in the area and the development team and the representative from Children’s gave satisfactory responses. They also seemed open to the idea of moving the neighborhood retail space to the other side of the lobby.
A young women who represents the Cedar condominiums said that her board was fully supportive of the proposal. They want to see the street activated (more foot traffic) during the day to help alleviate some nuisance issues like students hanging out during school time, graffiti and small property crimes.
After a robust discussion, the committee voted to support the developer’s request for a special exception, provided that the neighborhood serving retail space is moved from the right side of the lobby to the left side (the northwest corner of the building) (suggested 1500 sf). This resolution will be presented to the full ANC commission at their next scheduled meeting.