Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mount Rainier aims to recapture the Kaywood Theater as a cultural anchor

Mount Rainier is a small town in Prince George's County, Maryland, immediately adjacent to Northeast DC.  I wrote a couple pieces about it over the years:

-- "When the one over neighborhood is in the county next door, and housing prices have been in the tank: Mount Rainer, Maryland," 2014
-- "Food co-ops as potential anchors of "ethical commercial districts"," 2013
-- "More on arts districts," 2009
-- "Lessons from the Gateway Arts District," 2008

It's a part of the county's Gateway Arts District (plan) and the state heritage area, Anacostia Trails/Maryland Milestones (plan).

I was really intrigued by both initiatives which are part of broader State of Maryland tourism and economic development efforts, although it's been a long time since I've read the respective plans.

I went to a bunch of their meetings and trainings circa 2003-2007, and the main things I figured out were:

(1) not focusing on concentrating their assets geographically made it hard to be successful, as proven by the various arts efforts strung along five miles of Rte. 1/Rhode Island Avenue from Eastern Avenue to East-West Highway

(2) having board structures dominated by the local elected officials from all the little jurisdictions, focusing on individualized agendas, made it difficult to achieve bigger, bolder projects along the lines of what I call Transformational Projects Action Plans..

Kaywood Theater.  The Kaywood Theater building is an old neighborhood theater that for many years has been used as a church.  The church left, and an arts initiative is developing, aiming to work with the City of Mount Rainier to take over the building.  Like many theaters in the area, it was developed as part of a small shopping center.  It's on Varnum Street, just across Eastern Avenue and the border with DC.

-- Kaywood Theater Project Presentation

Presentation tonight.  There is a meeting tonight at Joe's Movement Emporium to discuss the proposal, which has been on the agenda for awhile.

It seems like a great building, the only problem is that it is "poorly located" in terms of not being on the Gateway district's major spine, Rhode Island Avenue, and somewhat distant from Metrorail, although it is served directly by two bus lines and is close to Michigan Avenue and ultimately isn't that far from the West Hyattsville Metrorail Station..

Prince George's County has a similar building, the Publick Playhouse, not too far away, and it isn't particularly noteworthy as a leading cultural asset although it's well used and it's great that the building has been maintained as a cultural asset rather than becoming a CVS.

Other theater examples in the area.  The interesting thing about this is that there are some similar situations close by.  The Takoma Theatre in my neighborhood is now becoming a clinic for Children's Hospital.  The Flower Theatre, used by a church, in a commercial district in the Long Branch area of Montgomery County, anchors a small commercial district there. 

Some years ago, the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase DC managed to be acquired by a nonprofit and still shows movies.  It is an important element in activating the Chevy Chase commercial district in the evenings, when otherwise activity may drop off, and helps to support restaurants and other retail in ways that other neighborhood commercial districts lack, because they don't have a night time business anchor.

The problem for both the Takoma and Flower Theatres is that they are located in comparatively larger jurisdictions that have many more projects on their plates, and so in neither case did DC or Montgomery County enter into the process in the necessary and significant way that was required in order to "save" the facilities given the particular circumstances and/or recalcitrance of the respective property owners. (And DC doesn't have a particularly good track record with nonprofits, government funding, and theater buildings.)

Side elevation, with windows punched into the former cinema section, Takoma Theatre, DC, renovated by Rock Creek Properties, and is no longer a cinema building
Side elevation, with windows punched into the former movie house, Takoma Theatre, DC, renovated by Rock Creek Properties.  It is no longer a cinema building

In Alexandria, Virginia it has been a struggle to keep the Old Town theater functioning on King Street, which is currently closed ("Alexandria's historic Old Town Theater could reopen soon," WTOP radio) although I argued more than 10 years ago that it should have been acquired by PBS which is based nearby, and positioned to support the PBS broadcasting program, in the way that Independent Film Channel created the IFC Center in New York City, which complements the programming of IFC and its sister cable networks (AMC and Sundance).

The Kaywood Theater in more recent times, although the church has relocated since this photo was taken.

The advantage of trying to restore a theater building in a small town.  Mount Rainier as a city is quite small.  It has fewer than 10,000 residents and technically it's less than a square mile, although the area considered the town is somewhat larger and they do have the capability of annexing some county lands, were they to have the inclination to do so.

Even so it does have three "commercial districts," on Rhode Island Avenue, on 37th Avenue (anchored by the Glut Food Co-op) and a commercial strip on Queens Chapel Road anchored by a grocery and a CVS, and none are so intact that they have been able to develop revitalization momentum that is self-replicating.

Potentially, DC could work with the Gateway Arts District and encourage complementary arts districts activities on its portion of the corridor between the state line and the Rhode Island Avenue Metrorail Station, but such hasn't really happened, although there is a Main Street commercial district program on the Rhode Island Avenue corridor.

But the advantage that the theater has is unlike DC with dozens of commercial districts and a number of old theater buildings, Mount Rainer only has one theater, so the city and its residents are able to focus on it, even if their resources are quite limited.

There are many examples of this around the country, where the community rallies around the theater because there is only one (e.g., the Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland; the in the process of being restored Ashland Theater in Ashland, Virginia; etc.).

Although unlike Mount Rainier, those communities are somewhat isolated and don't compete with a myriad of communities and entertainment assets.

Universities, specifically the University of Maryland College Park? While it might be a stretch because the University of Maryland College Park's focus on outreach activities in PG and surrounding counties seems to wax and wane with their budget, in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art have joined together in restoring a historic theater building on North Avenue, the Parkway and JHU moved its film studies program to that theater ("A grand premiere for Baltimore's renovated Parkway Theatre," JHU Hub.

Across the country, other universities have moved similar projects forward, although usually they are in the same time. One example is the Majestic Theatre," in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Gettysburg College.

Somehow, could UMD be brought into the project in Mount Rainier?eater

Foundations.  In many places, building specific foundations have been created to restore and manage theater-cinema buildings, examples include the Byrd Theatre in the Carytown district of Richmond, Virginia and the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon.  (Interestingly, Portland still has a large number of independently owned theaters throughout the city.)

In Cleveland, the Playhouse Square Development Corporation, and in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, have restored and manage multiple buildings in a designated cultural district ("The Howard and Lincoln Theatres: run them like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Playhouse Square Cleveland model"). 

In Northern California/Southern Oregon, the Jefferson Radio Foundation, the NPR affiliate, restored the Cascade Theatre in Redding, California and is proceeding with the restoration of the Holly Theatre in Medford, Oregon, although the theater initiatives led to a rearticulation of the organization ("Jefferson Public Radio’s deal with university splits radio from real estate," Current).

Film Societies.  The Salt Lake Film Society runs a neighborhood theater (which includes a video rental operation) as well as a Downtown cinema complex. (And other nonprofit theaters have taken over video operations too, e.g., "Movie Madness To Close? Not If The Hollywood Theatre Can Save It," Oregon Public Radio.)

Capacity building resources.

-- League of Historic American Theatres
-- "Theater restoration takes center stage: Monday workshop provides tips to theater groups intent on preserving historic places," Observer, about a workshop for people pursuing theater restoration projects across Oregon

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