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The Block

Real-Estate Boom and Ambitious Development Plans May Chase Everyman Theatre out of Station North Arts District

Jefferson Jackson Steele
LIFE OFF THE STREET: The Everyman Theatre (first door from left) will have to leave its home on the 1700 block of North Charles Street.

By John Barry | Posted 12/21/2005

On a snowy Saturday night, the 1700 block of North Charles Street is jammed with theatergoers, barflies, crêpe aficionados, and film buffs. Lines of ticket buyers snake along the sidewalk, and calamari eaters peer out the glass windows of Tapas Teatro. The Everyman Theatre, situated at the corner of Charles and Lafayette streets, is filling up—at the end of a six-week run, its latest production, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, is still sold out on weekends.

Inside, though, space is tight. The theater itself is lined with chairs you might find at an academic seminar, and the patrons are busy stepping over one another to reach their unreserved seats. The stage is well suited to this production, in which three men are chained together in a cell, but with eight or nine characters things get tight.

The 170-seat Everyman may be a victim of its own success. Presently, its sold-out production runs leave no room for rehearsals in the performance space—actors rehearse off-site. Over the last two years, the alternatives have become increasingly clear: Either the Everyman finds a way to expand in its current location or it leaves the neighborhood, its only home since 1994.

For years, the Everyman has eyed the long-closed Chesapeake Restaurant at the south end of the block, 1701 N. Charles St., as the answer to its travails. The aging Baltimore landmark has been mostly empty for 20 years. It is large enough to accommodate a theater the size Everyman desires, and it could give the company a permanent place in the center of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the area of the North Charles corridor bound roughly by Pennsylvania Station on the south and 20th Street on the north that the city and state have targeted for tax incentives and promotion for arts-related uses.

Now, though, the Chesapeake Restaurant lots may become occupied by a 13-story condominium. In a Sept. 12 press release, the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC)—a quasi-governmental organization that facilitates development in the city—announced that Baltimore had accepted a $47.5 million proposal for a massive renovation and reconstruction of the lots, a plan that leaves the Everyman out in the cold.

Inside the theater, it doesn’t take much to get people started on the subject of big development and the city. “It’s all about taxes,” says Mel Greenberg, a subscriber to the Everyman for four years. “Since Everyman is a nonprofit, and the place is popular, the city wants someone who brings money in.”

“You talking about the Everyman?” asks another woman farther down the aisle. “I’ll tell you why they’re doing it.” She holds up an imaginary dollar bill. “That’s why.”

In the front lobby between acts, state Sen. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County), who is running for U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin’s 3rd District seat, is more reticent. While she is a longtime theater patron, and eats frequently across the street at Zodiac, she says she isn’t really prepared to comment on the development itself.

She may have a point. The development of lots No. 8 and No. 9—where the Chesapeake’s shell now stands—is a legally and financially complex deal. The three major real-estate owners on the block have a long and contentious history stretching back decades. For the theatergoers and local artists, however, the ultimate irony is that while the city and state trumpet North Charles’ 1700 block as the center of a cultural renaissance, they have lost the chance to keep one of the city’s few professional live theaters, a touchstone player in the block’s resurgence, in the neighborhood.

Behind the Club Charles’ bar is a sign with plastic lettering: save the everyman. call the mayor’s office! 410-396-3100.

Expletives pepper Club Charles and Zodiac Restaurant owner Joy Martin’s thoughts about why the city hasn’t made a serious effort to find the Everyman a home in the arts district. “They used to call this place the hole in the doughnut,” she says, sitting at the bar on a recent snowy Saturday afternoon. “It was the shithole in the doughnut before the Everyman came. And now there’s going to be a 13-story glass condominium?”

The Chesapeake renovation plans begin with the BDC, one of the city’s most powerful if most inscrutable agencies. It facilitates development in the city by streamlining the bureaucratic process, recommending city loans, and using the city’s right of eminent domain to gain possessions of lots for development.

For more than a decade, the BDC and the city have had their eye on lots No. 8 and No. 9 at the corner of Charles and East Lanvale streets, which includes the Chesapeake and a parking lot, as prime candidates for development. For 18 years, it had been owned by attorney Robert Sapero, who managed to outmaneuver the 1700 block’s major landowner, Alan Shecter, by purchasing the property in 1986. The building has remained mostly dark since; finally, in April 2004, the city slated the Chesapeake for seizure by eminent domain.

Early this year, the BDC sent out requests for development proposals. The Feb. 8, 2005, press release clearly outlines the city’s intent: to encourage development in an area north of Penn Station and south of 20th Street—the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. It calls for proposals that would maintain the character of the area as a “vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood with particular emphasis on arts and entertainment,” and specifies “uses which include or are supportive of arts and entertainment venues” as a goal.

It was the moment for which Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi and the theater had been waiting. The theater had just completed a 2004-’05 season in which the hit play Proof had sold out for seven weeks, demonstrating it had outgrown its tiny home. Using its limited resources and working with a local architect, the Everyman submitted a $7.5 million proposal to the BDC to transform the Chesapeake and surrounding lots to accommodate a 250-seat theater. The proposal included plans to redo the upper floor to provide classroom space and to renovate two East Lanvale Street rowhouses. With support from the city, the Everyman could find a permanent home. Without it, Lancisi says, it would have no choice but to leave. “If it doesn’t work out,” he said in a Feb. 10 Baltimore Business Journal article, “Everyman has to move somewhere else.”

Unfortunately, the Everyman was competing against some major local developers—particularly those who teamed up to form the Station North Development Partners, which includes Tower Hill Development and Consulting, the Miller Group, and real-estate developer Alan Shecter. Since Shecter already owns much of the real estate on the 1700 block of North Charles, the Station North Development proposal is ambitious: the $47.5 million Chesapeake Square, a mixed-use area to include construction of a 13-story condominium, 20,000 square feet of street-level retail, 15,000 square feet of office space, 11 townhouses, and a 190-space parking garage. As a concession to the arts community, the project includes five “artist’s lofts”, as well as office space for the Schuler School of Fine Arts in a building to be constructed at Charles and Lafayette streets.

Paired off against Station North Development and one other proposal, the Everyman couldn’t match the architect wattage or financing of the competing proposals. The Everyman’s hope was that, in the fledgling arts district, the city would use its influence to give the only live theater in Station North a permanent home at 1701 N. Charles St.

It didn’t happen. On Sept. 12, the BDC announced its acceptance of the $47.5 million Chesapeake Square proposal. “We considered the alternatives and, basically, [Station North Development] seemed to be the ones who had the big picture,” BDC President M.J. “Jay” Brodie says. “They had financing ability as well.” He notes that, though BDC rejected the Everyman’s proposal, it will help the theater find a new home. Meanwhile, the BDC entered into a 180-day exclusive negotiating privilege with Station North Development.

The proposal’s legal difficulties, meanwhile, had just begun. To pave way for the development, BDC announced that the Chesapeake was slated for condemnation—meaning that the city would seize the property, permitted under the state’s eminent-domain laws. In the process, the city would compensate owner Robert Sapero $770,000, the building’s market value declared by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates Oct. 27.

Sapero strongly disputed the estimate, and then said that 30 days prior to the Board of Estimates meeting he had sold the lot for $2 million to an anonymous buyer. In a recent call, Tim Sutton, Sapero’s spokesman, identifies the purchaser as Vic Cheswick, but says Cheswick’s plans for the building are uncertain. The city, meanwhile, refused to recognize the sale—if $2 million is accepted as the property’s value, the cost of seizing the lots would more than triple—and is taking the dispute to court.

Sutton says he wonders why the city is willing to shell out so much in potential legal fees to pursue the property when the block itself is relatively healthy. “It’s a waste of the city’s economic resources,” he says. “They could be using that money to develop North Avenue.”

The exclusive relationship between the BDC and Station North Development leaves many business owners in the arts district feeling left out of a decision-making process that will change their lives dramatically. These grumblings are in part fueled by the BDC’s identity as a nonprofit organization independent of the city that conducts most of its dealings behind closed doors. The BDC makes its press releases public via its web site, but its lack of community involvement in its decision-making leaves some local businesspeople feeling left out of the process.

Attorney John Murphy has represented small businesses in the struggle to make BDC negotiations public. Murphy is currently awaiting a verdict in an appeal of a 2004 lawsuit on behalf of nine downtown west-side business owners who claim that their interests were not taken into account in the BDC’s “superblock” redevelopment plan in the area bounded by Howard, Fayette, Clay, Park, and Liberty streets. Much of Murphy’s argument rests on the operations of BDC itself: While BDC claims to be a nonprofit not required to make its negotiations public, Murphy says that since BDC performs a public function the public should be allowed to participate in the process.

“Open-meetings laws were enacted in Baltimore 30 years ago, but the BDC hasn’t complied,” Murphy says. “It’s a public entity. The mayor has total control over the BDC, and all the directors serve at his pleasure. Just look at a list of the board members.” He notes that three of BDC’s 14 board members come from city offices: Edward Gallagher, the city’s director of finance; Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano; and Clarence Bishop, the mayor’s chief of staff.

Murphy also notes that, while defending itself against his lawsuit, the BDC has used a lawyer provided by the city. “I know my clients would love to have a city lawyer defending them,” he laughs.

He says the influence wielded by board members such as Graziano is particularly intimidating for small businesses in their dealings with the BDC. As executive director of the Baltimore City Housing Authority, Graziano oversees the municipal agency charged with housing and building code enforcement, which plays an essential role in determining condemnations. While not accusing the BDC or Graziano of any improprieties, Murphy says that since the boundaries between city government and the BDC are blurred the economic development agency needs to conduct its business in the public eye.

“They’re using public authority, state money, and eminent domain to facilitate this sort of large-scale redevelopment,” Murphy says. “Often the government puts their spin on it in the press release. But what are the real commitments being made to the community?”

Few on the 1700 block of North Charles are ready to accuse the BDC of impropriety, but many wonder if, after declaring the area an Arts and Entertainment zone, the state and city have effectively dropped the ball by allowing the BDC and big developers a long leash.

Martin, whose Club Charles and Zodiac Restaurant have both profited significantly from the overflow of the Everyman, doesn’t mince her words. “We’re being screwed,” she says. “Before Everyman came here there was a paraphernalia shop, a crack house, [and] a porno bookstore on that side of the street. Now they bring in big developers, they let them put up this giant building. There’s a ton of resentment. We can’t lose the Everyman. Why can’t the city spend money on streetlights? People can’t walk up past North Avenue because they’re afraid of getting mugged.”

Lancisi tries to remain above the fray of the development storm. Sitting in his office next to a board scribbled with proposals for next season’s productions, he foresees the Everyman’s imminent departure—perhaps in three years—with genuine regret. This is a neighborhood he helped revive, and he doesn’t want to leave.

The early days at Station North, he recalls, were a trial by fire. Lancisi arrived in Baltimore in 1990 with a mission to create affordable, accessible professional theater, and the nascent Everyman company teetered on bankruptcy as it migrated from one venue to the next. Four years after its debut production in 1990, the Everyman finally found a home at the corner of Charles and Lafayette in an old two-story bowling alley.

“You can find the lanes right under here,” Lancisi laughs, tapping the boards underneath his desk. “There were lanes upstairs as well. I always wondered what it sounded like.”

The building’s owner, Alan Shecter, charged Everyman almost nothing. “I think it was $2,000 for the whole first year,” Lancisi says. The rent was cheap for a reason. “The street was dark, it was 80 percent vacant. The Charles [Theatre] was dark that year—people don’t remember that. There was a liquor store on the other side, and a diner, and Club Charles, and that was it. This was going out on a limb. We had nothing to lose. I remember running to the back of the theater when the BGE people were coming to turn us off. There were rough, rough times.”

The Everyman barely made it through its first few Charles Street years. With an $18,000 debt, the theater would have closed down permanently if it had not been for an anonymous cash donation and a determined board of directors. Now, Lancisi can rest easy about the electric bill. While the Everyman isn’t making money, it is financially solvent with a large body of supporters and a string of successful productions. The theater remains a nonprofit organization, with almost half of its annual revenue coming from contributions. In 2004, $474,526 of its $1 million total revenue came from contributions, with the rest coming from government grants ($70,735), program services ($458,040), and special events ($17,488).

Choosing his words carefully, Lancisi prefers to speak about the Everyman’s predicament in terms of the bigger picture. On the cusp of a real-estate revival, he says, the city may have lost control over its own real estate. Tax breaks and partial funding that the city gives artists in the area is not enough to keep them there. Given the current boom, the city needs to take more active measures to find permanent bases for theaters and other arts.

“I know the city is trying to do things to attract artists,” Lancisi says. “One thing that’s going to be crucial—if you want artists to come to an arts district, you have to give them a reason. One thing that would make a difference is ownership. When they don’t have ownership, the artists who attracted people to the community get forced out. Rents go up, they go out the door. They don’t need tax breaks. They need to be able to own their space at a low cost. I don’t know if Baltimore is ready to do that.”

Despite its much higher real-estate values, Lancisi points to Washington—where he received his theater degree—as an example of a city that managed to become one of the country’s major theater centers. He says D.C. achieved this by requiring large developers to provide permanent space to nonprofit theaters and artists.

“That’s what happened to Woolly Mammoth Theatre,” Lancisi says, referring to a popular Washington company that moved into a new building on D Street last year. “It’s a beautiful new space. But in exchange for the right to develop, the building’s developers included space for a new theater.”

It’s that sort of developmental attitude that, Lancisi says, helped Washington nurture the growth of its now 72 professional theaters—in a city that only had 15 when he graduated from Catholic University in 1988. When he came here in 1990, Lancisi hoped Baltimore would follow suit. If anything, the number of theaters has declined.

“Even five or six years ago, there were six or seven small professional theaters besides us,” he says. “Then they just disappeared, one by one.”

Now, Baltimore City is home to only three professional theater companies: the Everyman, Center Stage, and the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. And that’s not nearly enough, Lancisi says. “I was hoping there’d be a renaissance,” he says. “All the ingredients seem to be here. All these empty buildings. When I arrived, it seemed that Baltimore was on the cusp of something, and we still keep hearing, ‘It’s on the rise! It’s on the rise!’ But it never quite happened.”

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