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Artsmash
Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
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New theaters proposed for block of N. Howard Street

Dining and Drinking

A listless west-side block of downtown Baltimore will undergo an energetic makeover if an idea generated by DIY-style theater troupes and local developer Winstead "Ted" Rouse comes to fruition.

Their plan, submitted earlier this year when the Baltimore Development Corp. issued a request for proposals, envisions turning three abandoned buildings in the 400 block of N. Howard Street, between West Franklin and West Mulberry, into a hub of theater, dance and more. It could open as early as 2016.

"It is indicative of the interest and progress we are seeing on the west side as a whole," said Brenda McKenzie, the BDC's president and CEO. "We received one proposal for those properties [408-414 N. Howard St.]. But one good proposal is all we need."

The project committee of the BDC, which meets Wednesday, will "say yea or nay," McKenzie said. If it's yea, the proposal will go to the full board, which will meet by the end of July.

The plan, with a total cost that could top $7 million, could give a substantial boost to a part of town — in and around the Bromo Tower Arts and Entertainment District — that has struggled. Last year, city officials cut ties with the developer of the long-delayed Superblock project, and the area continues to deal with crime.

Still, there have been positives. Everyman Theatre's opening on West Fayette Street last year is a major example of redevelopment in the neighborhood; the recent launch of a restaurant, Forno Baltimore, across the street from the Hippodrome Theatre on North Eutaw Street, is another.

The Howard Street theater proposal envisions three separate venues, each with its own street-level performance space and its own marquee announcing events presented by the likes of Annex Theater, EMP Collective, Acme Corporation and Stillpointe Theatre Initiative. Upstairs areas are envisioned as a beehive of various cultural, social and business enterprises.

"The big thing about this is that we are pooling together a number of companies," said Evan Moritz, artistic director of Annex Theatre. "We felt there could be better strength through numbers."

The groups, all run by artists in their mid-20s to mid-30s, are among those that have been helping to fuel Baltimore's vibrant alternative theater scene for several years, offering a wide assortment of new or re-imagined work. They have been doing this nomadically, for the most part.

"A lot of the companies have very temporary spaces, with month-to-month leases in some cases," Moritz said. "We can make sure we're not going anywhere."

Seeking a permanent home is a widely shared goal for theater companies. Within the past 18 months, Baltimore has seen that goal realized for Everyman Theatre and also for Single Carrot Theatre, which opened a venue of its own in a renovated tire shop at the far end of North Howard Street, on the upper reaches of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Annex Theater currently stages productions at the Chicken Box, a reclaimed fast food store on North Avenue. EMP Collective, which offers theater, music and visual art events, uses rented space on West Baltimore Street a few blocks from the proposed redevelopment site. The other groups participating in the Howard Street project can be found in rented church halls and other locations.

The possibility of seeing several companies converge in the neighborhood appeals to Everyman's artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, who is also board president of the Bromo Arts District.

"I've been fixated on the promise of what could happen," Lancisi said, "and the vision these companies have of taking three storefronts on an almost ghost-like block of Howard Street and transforming that into a vibrant theater scene. I really hope that the powers-that-be select their proposal. We have little to lose in giving them a chance, and a lot to be gained."

Colin Tarbert, Baltimore's deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said the city is hoping to build an environment in the Bromo Arts District in which folks can live, work and be entertained all within a few blocks.

"The city's goal on the west side is to create a vibrant arts community," he said, pointing to developments such as 520 Park that have drawn residents.

New theaters could help bolster the area even more, Tarbert said.

"They could become anchors in the communities," he said. "Everyman has been very successful. The Hippodrome is already there. We have the Arena Players to the north. There's already a thriving theater district within the Bromo area. The more venues you have, the better it is for the community."

By themselves, the companies involved in the Howard Street project would not likely contemplate a $7 million project. They are used to modest annual budgets — $20,000 to $30,000 at Annex, for example; $25,000 to $30,000 at EMP. Other participating groups make do on a great deal less.

To realize their ambition, these organizations have a daunting challenge.

"We need to raise $2.7 million to build out these spaces on Howard Street so we can operate at cost and have no debt when they open," said Carly J. Bales, artistic director for EMP. "This may have seemed surreal and a little day-dreamy eight months ago, but not now. This is totally doable and we're going to make it happen."

What gives these theaters such confidence is the crucial participation of Rouse, lead developer for the Howard Street renovation proposal.

Federal and state tax credits could finance up to 60 percent of the $7 million total, said Rouse, son of developer James Rouse and a partner in the former Baltimore redevelopment firm Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

Expectations are that help from foundations, corporations and private donors will make up the difference. That fundraising effort does not faze Rouse. "Everyman raised $18 million for its theater," he said.

If the project gets a green light, construction could begin as early as July 2015, Rouse said, and the renovated buildings could open in 2016.

The construction crews will have their work cut out for them. There are three separate parcels involved, adding up to about 30,000 square feet.

"It's sort of like the three little bears," Bales said. "One property is in great condition and is absolutely beautiful. One is OK. The third is bare and structurally unsound."

Moritz expects the performance areas to vary in size from about 1,600 to 2,000 square feet, the largest being for dance. In the case of Annex Theater, this would mean a doubling from its current 800 square feet, and tripling audience capacity — from an average of 30 seats now to as much as 100 in the new venue.

A shared production shop, rehearsal space and storage area are anticipated. A restaurant is also being planned. That could help bring traffic to the block even when there are no performances going on. Not that there would likely be many dark nights.

"We looked at our numbers," Bales said, "and realized that all of us, collectively, organize 360 days of programming a year. And, based on our numbers for the past year alone, we brought in 10,000 audience members."

By joining an enterprise that concentrates all of that activity on one block of the Bromo Arts District, the various companies stand to gain stability and exposure.

"Our goal is to be a place of experimental performing arts platforms, a landing pad for people," Bales said. "It's pretty damn exciting."

As for organizational structure, three groups will be "the parent companies, handling the day-to-day running of the space," Moritz said.

Annex and EMP will be joined in this role by Psychic Readings. That group will be run by formerly Baltimore-based Ric Royer, who is expected to return from Providence, R.I., where he is involved with a similar artist-led cooperative.

When the Howard Street idea was hatched, three "resident" groups were included, creating "a nonprofit collective," Bales said. Members of the parent and resident companies will serve on a board of directors.

The resident companies include Acme Corporation, which has been staging shows at a church in the Station North district; and Stillpointe Theatre Initiative, now using the EMP space.

Stillpointe artistic director Ryan Haase sees the project connecting to the city's past.

"That whole spot on Howard Street just needs to have these theater companies," Haase said. "Imagine stepping outside and seeing the marquees and a streetcar [Light Rail] passing by. It will take you back to what that area was, the old-time charm of it."

Freshly renovated buildings with proper lighting grids and power sources, rehearsal and set-building areas would make a big difference to all of the companies.

"Living in a permanent space allows you to grow in a way that a nomadic existence doesn't," said Lola B. Pierson, Acme's co-founding artistic director. "A tragedy of Baltimore is that all these beautiful buildings have been abandoned and no one is doing anything. [The Howard Street project] would let us engage in a way that benefits a neighborhood."

Rouse estimates that the theater hub will provide about 50 arts jobs a year.

"This is a business generator and a job generator," he said. "These kinds of investments can have a huge spinoff in terms of economic prosperity and cultural prosperity for the entire city. It's what we, as a community, need to support."

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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