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April 6, 2016

Board Allows Commercial Reuse of Takoma Theatre

Developers of the historic Takoma Theatre site secured key support from the Historic Preservation Review Board on Thursday for their plans to restore the long vacant building for commercial use.

Rock Creek Property Group purchased the revival-style building for $2.2 million last May and reversed course from previous developers’ plans for an apartment building. Built in 1923, the movie theater at 6833 4th St. NW closed in 1980, and the building has been empty ever since. Original owner Milton McGinty tried several times to demolish the building, only to be rebuffed by the preservation board each time.

McGinty died in September 2013. Shortly before that, his daughter submitted a plan to the preservation board for a two-story residential building with a third floor dormer on the site. Board members approved the project in concept but asked for design and location revisions, which never came.

Last week, the preservation board voted unanimously to find the Rock Creek firm’s proposed concept consistent with the neighborhood’s historic character and delegated final approval to Historic Preservation Office staffers. 

“I know this has been a long and tortured process, but I think where this project and where this building are now is something that should make everyone happy about the hard work you put into it over these decades,” board historian Andrew Aurbach told project backers at Thursday’s hearing.

The project will add an interior second floor — formed by reducing the first-story ceiling height rather than raising the building’s roof — as well as new windows, skylights and gutters. The theater’s lobby, outdoor marquee and landscaping will be restored. The most controversial aspects of previous plans (adding a third floor or constructing an addition on the side) have been removed.

Interior schematics for the project have been drawn up, and construction is expected to begin later this spring and last six months, wrapping up by the end of the year, development principal Gary Schlager said in an interview.

Schlager said his staff thought the size and location of the building was better suited to commercial use than to residential, especially given the volume of residences in that portion of Takoma. Plans for the occupants haven’t been finalized, but Schlager said the first floor’s high ceilings could work well for a theater, music venue, restaurant or neighborhood market, while the new second floor’s exposed trusses and skylights lend themselves to office space.

Several neighborhood groups testified in support of the project at the hearing, a marked contrast from previous interactions between theater owners and the public. Takoma Theatre Conservancy president Loretta Neumann said she’s pleased with the focus on commercial as opposed to residential, and she continues to push for a black box theater serving up and-coming arts groups in the new facility.

Neumann and several other community members testified that they want to see the preservation board consider even the smallest alterations from the current plan, rather than allowing minor matters to be delegated to staff members for an administrative review. Board chair Gretchen Pfaehler told the team she recognizes their desire to oversee the project at an intricate level and promised consultation with key stakeholders on relevant matters going forward.

Despite the ongoing concern about small revisions, community sentiments at Thursday’s hearing swung heavily in favor of the developer. Historic Takoma vice president Lorraine Pearsall said the Rock Creek Property Group has properly treated the theater as the “significant resource” that she believes it is.

“We are absolutely thrilled with the developer,” said Pearsall. “The developer has worked with us in a manner that is really great, that we don’t usually see. We have had very good communication.”

Takoma resident Sara Green, a former member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B, testified that she was among a group of volunteers who ran community screenings and helped with other theater business back in the 1970s. She maintains a special fondness for the building’s history. “We clutch these resources to our bosom with extraordinary affection and reverence,” Green said.

Green said she stands by ANC 4B’s supportive resolution on the project. Current ANC 4B member Faith Wheeler testified that she thinks the plan portends “a cohesive unit and a lovely building.”

Going forward, Schlager told The Current his team’s ultimate goal is to revitalize the neighborhood that surrounds the former Takoma Theatre. 

“When you go south of the Metro, it kind of dies there,” Schlager said. “We’re hoping to be the southern anchor of the whole neighborhood.”

About Rock Creek Property Group:
Rock Creek Property Group, founded in 2002, is a commercial real estate investment company based in Washington, D.C. Its principals own a diverse portfolio of office, industrial, multi-family and retail properties in the mid-Atlantic region. Over the years, Rock Creek’s principals have acquired and developed several million square feet of commercial property.