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From Theatrical Black Box to Financial Black Hole?

In a story posted earlier this week, Michael Lee Pope of the weekly Arlington Connection writes:

“When the Arlington County Board approved a new nine-story mixed-use commercial building in Virginia Square earlier this year, it was a deal that seemed too good to be true. Herndon-based developer Crimson Partners would construct a $3.7 million “black box” theater with seating for 150 people in exchange for $1.3 million worth of bonus density. The community would get an amenity identified in its sector plan, and the developer would get to build a larger building. But now that the project is moving forward, some are starting to wonder about whether or not the black box would become a black hole.

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“Budget documents show that the county spends $3 million a year on the Rosslyn cultural center known as Artisphere, which takes in about $1.5 million in revenue. Ballston residents are concerned that the new 13,000-square-foot theater proposed in Virginia Square would be a similar burden. Although the main use of the new facility would be for theatrical productions, the list of allowed uses includes events, conferences, religious uses and civic events. County officials say the ancillary uses will not inhibit the theater’s revenue potential. Some aren’t so sure.”

The site at 3901 Fairfax has been home to the Arlington Funeral Home. Arlington County’s Economic Development Department has more information about the “first purpose-built black box” at their website.

In his reporting, Pope also noted the following comments, which should be troubling to Arlington taxpayers:

“Even before the proposal was approved, doubts were already building about the financial viability of the theater. Planning Commissioner Charles Monfort expressed concerns when the commission considered the proposal, noting that the experience with Artisphere indicated that the county does not have a good track record in planning art facilities. Commissioner Steve Cole said it was troubling the Planning Commission was expected to advise the County Board on the proposal without first seeing a business plan . . . .”

And the inimitable Bob Atkins was not to be outdone. He added:

“Instead of a black box theater, this is a financial black hole theater,” said Robert Atkins during the public hearing. “This will be a net loss as opposed to a net benefit.”

More information about the 3901 Fairfax Drive site plan amendment and the black box theatre can be found in the staff report to the Arlington County Board (item 39 on the Board’s January 21, 2012 agenda). Additional detail about the black box is in a supplemental report, specifically site plan conditions 78 and 78 and a 17-page “scope of work,” dated January 19, 2012, which governs “the design and construction and fit out for the Black Box Theatre.”

In a separate letter available at the Board's meetings and agenda page, the Board-appointed Commission for the Arts endorsed the project, and added the theatre is "an amenity that is an investment in the community well beyond the arts. A black box theater in Virginia Square helps realize the vision of our community . . . ." (emphasis in the original) The letter from the Commission for the Arts also noted the applicant had received $1 million in bonus density in exchange for the theatre as the so-called community benefit.

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