CHATHAM – For two summers, the Monomoy Theatre has been dark. Unless a zoning change can be made soon to pave the way for redevelopment of the property, the theater is likely to remain closed for at least three more years, its owners say.
In the coming week, Alexandra Properties, which purchased the 2.7-acre property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. for $3.65 million last September, will be collecting the 200 signatures required to hold a special town meeting to put the zoning change before voters. A drive-through signature collection will be held at the theater on Monday, Aug. 24, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and petitions are also available to sign at Gibson Sotheby's office at 409 Main St. and at Chatham Jewelers at 532 Main St.
The goal is to turn in the petition by Aug. 31. Selectmen would then have 45 days to hold the special town meeting, probably in late September or early October. The zoning change will require a two-thirds vote to pass.
Preliminary plans for the property include renovation of the theater into a year-round community arts center, with dorms to house students during a summer program for college theater students similar to the one that operated at Monomoy for decades. Condominiums targeted at owners aged 55 and up would be located toward the rear of the property. The housing, planned retail space and a proposed wine bar are seen as necessary to provide the economic support for the redevelopment.
The measure was previously scheduled to go before voters at this year's annual town meeting, but it was postponed, along with a number of other petition articles, initially to a planned fall special town meeting. In July selectmen canceled that session moved the petition articles to next May's annual meeting.
Selectmen worked hard not to have a special town meeting in the fall, said Chairman Shareen Davis, and if the Monomoy petition is successful, petitioners whose articles had been delayed are likely to request that they be included on the warrant.
“There are many important issues that have been delayed,” she said. “Until we see the petition, we're not making any plans.”
Given the time frame for finalizing plans and getting approvals from town boards, waiting until May for approval of the zoning change will push the project schedule out at least a year, possibly more, said Greg Clark of Alexandra Properties. Even the May town meeting date is not definitive given the pandemic, he said; this year the annual town meeting was postponed until late June. That session was held at Veterans Field and showed that a town meeting can be held safely, Clark said.
“We think something needs to be done there,” he said of the property, which includes two historic buildings — the theater, portions of which are thought to have been built around 1880, and the 1861 Washington Taylor House — both of which are in need of major restoration. Clark has proposed placing both on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make the project eligible for historic tax credits. “It's a shame to see it just sit there,” he said.
For more than 80 years, the property was the home of a summer theater company. From 1958 to 2018, a college theater training program — initially under Ohio University, in recent years the University of Hartford's Hartt School — staged eight productions during a 10-week season, a sort of theater boot camp where actors, technicians and guest artists lived, worked and performed on the property. Problems with health and safety code compliance led to the university to not renew its lease, and the previous owners opted to sell the property.
The proposed zoning change would create a Main Street Theatre Overlay District, allowing the restoration, renovation and expansion of the Taylor House and theater as well as the construction of 24 condominiums. Without the change, or if it takes too long to get the proposal before voters, Clark said, carrying costs on the property — taxes, insurance, upkeep — will necessitate looking at alternative plans allowed without the zoning change, which could include more commercially oriented development, since the property is currently zoned for general business.
Under the overlay district proposal all general business district uses would still be allowed, but it would also sanction multi-family units, at the back of the property, and dormitories, which Clark has proposed for new space that would link the Taylor House and theater building and could house summer theater students. The district would require that the project go before the zoning board of appeals for a special permit and the planning board for site plan approval, and the appearance of the historic structures would remain under the jurisdiction of the historic business district commission. Both the planning board and HBDC had positive reactions to the preliminary plans.
Clark's proposal calls for renovating and modernizing the theater, possibly expanding its 260-seat capacity with the addition of a partial balcony. The existing scene shop would be moved to the east side and attached to the theater building with a full basement and other renovations to accommodate practice space and scenery storage. Another addition on the east side would house a wine bar on the first floor and property manager's apartment on the second floor; new space between the wine bar and theater would house upgraded rest rooms.
The Taylor House would be placed on a new foundation and renovated to hold retail space on the first floor and dorms on the second floor. A two-story structure with the same uses would connect it to the theater. Twenty-five parking space would be included for the theater along with 14 for the wine bar. During performances, theatergoers would park in nearby public parking lots and be shuttled to the theater.
At the rear of the property, six condominium buildings would be built with 24 two-bedroom units of approximately 1,400 square feet each. The housing would be accessed from Depot Road and be geared toward residents over 55 years of age. The units would satisfy a need for housing near downtown, said Clark, and cater to “empty nesters” looking to downsize.
A website, mstoverlaychatham.com, has been set up with details of the proposed project. Clark said the plans are preliminary and will be refined if the zoning change is approved. If that happens, design and permitting would be completed by the end of January, with construction beginning in February and continuing through June 2022. The project cost hasn't been finalized but will be “north of” $20 million, Clark said.
Clark said he's received positive reaction to the petition drive, and its success will determine the support for the project within the community.
“Everybody wants to see the theater restored,” he said. But, he added, “If we don't get this support, that might be the end of it right there.”
If the signature drive is successful, selectmen have 45 days from the receipt of the petition to hold the special town meeting. Because it involves a zoning change, selectmen have 14 days to submit the measure to the planning board, which must review it and hold a public hearing, allowing two weeks for notice of the hearing to be published. That would likely put the timing of a meeting into late September or early October if sufficient signatures are collected and turned in by Aug. 31.
It generally costs $4,000 to $5,000 to hold a town meeting, according to Town Clerk Julie Smith. Costs were roughly the same for the recent outdoor town meeting, she said, although other departments, such as the DPW, which set up the field, may have incurred other costs. Clark had offered to pay the costs, but selectmen said that was now allowed.
At Monday's drive-through signature collection, masks are required and people will remain in their vehicle. Each person will be given their own pen to sign, and staff handling the petitions will be wearing gloves and masks and observing safety protocols, Clark said.
Selectman Dean Nicastro, a longtime supporter of the Monomoy Theatre, said he supports Clark's redevelopment plan. “I think it's a challenge, but I think it can work,” he said. However, he doesn't support the move to have a fall special town meeting, mainly for public health reasons. He also said he made a promise that the other petition articles that were postponed would be included on the next town meeting warrant, and he's already heard from three petitioners — for measures seeking a residential tax exemption, a ban on the sale of plastic water bottles and a climate change resolution — indicated they'd want to be included on a fall warrant.
“I understand what they're trying to do,” he said of Clark's effort. “I don't say this lightly, because I'm a big advocate of the theater, but I would prefer they wait until the 2021 annual town meeting.”
Selectman Cory Metters, who supported Clark's request before the board last month, said he understands the timing and financial issues the project is facing and he believes the community will support the project. He said a fall special town meeting can be held safely.
“I think we proved that with the meeting we had in June,” he said.
Scott Hamilton, president of the Friends of the Monomoy Theatre, said he supports the project as the best way to restore the theater “in as close a fashion as we have known it.”
“I see it as the most viable option for saving the theater,” he said. He hasn't heard any opposition and said he expects that the signature drive will be successful. His name is at the top of the petition at his business, Chatham Jewelers.
Clark said he believes residents want to see the theater and Taylor House restored and active again, especially after the bleak months of the pandemic.
“We're of the belief, with this pandemic, shutting everything down is not good for anybody,” he said. “For people to see something positive happen is a good thing.”
The theater owners are also offering to drop off and pick up petitions at residents' homes. For information, visit the project website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.