Will Curtain Fall On Monomoy Theatre Plan?

By: Tim Wood

The Monomoy Theatre. FILE PHOTO

Selectmen, Plan Board Oppose Zoning Change

CHATHAM – Saturday's special town meeting promises to be a drama worthy of the Monomoy Theatre stage, as the new owners of the venerable property try to convince voters to change the zoning bylaw to allow its redevelopment.

The players lined up this week as Greg Clark of Alexandra Properties, which purchased the 2.7-acre property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. a year ago for $3.65 million, sought the endorsement of the planning board and board of selectmen of the meeting's single article, an amendment to the zoning bylaw creating a Main Street Overlay District which would allow multi-family housing and dormitories while requiring the restoration of the theater and adjacent historic house.

Both voted not to support the measure, however, and a number of others, including the theater's longtime artistic director, also voiced opposition to the proposal.

At press time, it was uncertain if Clark, who petitioned to force a special town meeting to address the zoning change, would move forward with the article or draw the curtain on the proposal, at least for now.

The meeting is set to begin at 1 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Field. The scene could play out in several ways. The petitioner could move for approval of the bylaw amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass. If it is defeated, a similar proposal could not come back before town meeting again for two years without a two-thirds vote of the planning board.

The article could also be indefinitely postponed or referred back to the planning board for further consideration.

Whatever the scenario, the meeting will go on, said Moderator William Litchfield.

“It can't be withdrawn,” he told the selectmen Tuesday. “Both myself and the town clerk have to appear [at the field] at 1 p.m.”

At both a long planning board hearing Monday and the selectmen's Tuesday meeting, the main objection to the overlay district amendment was the lack of a guarantee that a theater would return to the property, along with the density of proposed multi-family housing on the Depot Road side of the property. Clark and attorney Michael Ford argued that the amendment was “enabling legislation” that allows uses on the property that are prohibited in the underlying general business two zoning district, and that specifics would be included in a later plan that would require approval by the zoning board of appeals, planning board and historic business district commission.

The lack of specific language and guarantees that the theater would reopen as a performing arts venue and not just be restored, perhaps with some other use, were among the reasons members of the planning board, who had endorsed an earlier version in June, voted against supporting the latest amendment.

The overlay district would allow dormitories, up to 25 of which were proposed, and multi-family housing, both of which aren't allowed in the general business two district. Up to 24 apartments or condominiums were proposed for the Depot Road side of the property, in six two-story buildings, each with a footprint of approximately 3,400 square feet. The dorms could also be affordable housing, as many as three units, depending upon discussions with officials and residents, Clark said.

The housing would be subject to the zoning bylaw requirement that 10 percent of units in developments of more than 10 be set aside as affordable. Developers can also make a payment to the town's affordable housing trust fund in lieu of including affordable units. The language in the amendment ties the development of the housing units, condominiums that will be restricted to owners 55 years old and up, to the restoration of the theater, which was built around 1880, and the adjacent circa 1861 Washington Taylor House. But there's no requirement that the buildings house a theater, critics said.

“The owners are under no obligation that I can see to support a theater,” said planning board member Warren Chane. The overlay district, he added, “is nothing more than a disguised spot zoning that guarantees significant benefits to the applicant and no benefits to the town.”

Both the planning board and board of selectmen had supported an earlier version of the proposal, developed in consultation with town planning staff, that was scheduled to go before voters at the May annual town meeting, but was postponed like all other petition articles. Greg said little changed in the most recent amendment, except a reduction in the allowable number of multi-family units from 32 to 24 and an increase in the units' square footage. But planning board members and selectmen said there had not been enough time for officials and the public to vet the proposal.

“More work needs to be done before this article is adopted,” said Selectman Dean Nicastro.

It was “inappropriate, somewhat selfish” to force a special town meeting by petition during a pandemic, said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. “This is a giant development in the middle of town that we're going to have to live with,” he said, adding that the project also doesn't address the town's need for more affordable and attainable housing.

While Clark was able to collect the 200 signatures necessary to call the meeting, any support the petition had began to unravel last week when letters from prominent community members began to circulate pointing out concerns about the overlay district. On Friday, a letter from former Monomoy Theatre Artistic Director Alan Rust was sent to theater supporters by the Friends of the Monomoy Theatre. In the letter, Rust said while he hopes an operating theater can return to the location, “I fear the plans being presented to the town at this time may not be practical.”

Rust, the artistic director of the theater for 37 years and a company member for 10 years prior, said in a followup interview that the proposal lacks many of the elements necessary for a residential theater company, including a kitchen, costume shop and rehearsal space. The proposal is misleading, he added, with the zoning change being sold as a way to bring back what existed at the theater for decades.

“I don't see how that's even possible, and don't want them to vote on it if they think they will get that back,” he said in an interview.

Rust, who recently retired as artistic director of the theater division at the University of Hartford's Hartt School and became a full-time Chatham resident, said he'd like to see more detailed plans and assurances that there will be a similar theater operation at the facility “and not just an auditorium.” As proposed, the renovated theater would be too small for a commercial venue and too large for a community theater, he said, and he doubted it could succeed financially.

“I believe that when the many followers and patrons of the Monomoy Theatre read that the theater will be back if the zoning is changed, they are being misled,” Rust wrote in the letter to theater supporters. Before changing zoning, there need to be much more detailed plans to show how the theater will function. “I fear the development of this property without significant detailed plans for the theater could result in disappointment for both the owners and for the many townspeople who would like to see the theatre working again.”

At the selectmen's meeting, Clark, who has owned a home in Chatham for 20 years, said the opposition ignored the benefits of the project, including historical restoration, affordable housing and renovation of the theater.

“What we're seeing is more inaccurate statements presented by people with individual agenda that aren't paying attention or caring for other aspects of the project,” he said.

Clark said he's been involved in construction of three live performing arts centers, and the existing facility does not meet the standards for today's theater. He said he's talked with an organization that could run the theater in the summer with a mix of equity actors and students. Profit from the residential development will pay for the restoration of the theater and the Washington Taylor house, he said, and will allow a theater to operate rent-free during the summer. For the remaining nine months of the year, local schools and charitable organizations will be allowed to use the facility at no charge, he said.

“It's always been our intent to run a theater there,” he told the planning board Monday. “A lot of the things people are asking questions about were not meant to be details at this point in the game. This was meant to be a path for the town to decide if they want this idea.”

The other option is to redevelop the property under the existing commercial zoning, “which does not mean that a theater has to be there,” he said. “We're offering to put that there.”

Language in the proposed bylaw ties development of the multi-family housing to restoration of the theater building and the Washington Taylor house, but planning board members said there was no specific requirement that both be done together or stipulating that the theater be a performance facility.

“You could walk away after the multi-family is built,” said member Art Spruch. “I don't think that benefits the town at all.”

“The general concept of bringing back the Monomoy Theatre is what everyone supports,” said Planning Board Chairman Kathryn Halpern, “but the details of how to do that I think need some work.” The amendment is “allowing too much and letting too much of the details be determined by later considerations.”

The mass of the multi-family units would be two-and-a-half times the size of the nearby fire station, said David Oppenheim. “This is Boston density,” he said, and would be among the most dense residential developments in town. He said he's worked in town as a builder and developer since the 1970s, and “this is probably the worst proposal I've ever seen.”

“This was supposed to be about saving the theater, not just restoring it,” said resident Elaine Gibbs. The overlay district language is too broad, she said. “There's too much missing.”

“This is a lucrative way to get around what voters wanted to see in residential development,” said Gloria Freeman. “It's a profit-making project which is not beneficial in any way to the theater or the town.”

During Saturday's town meeting, parking will be prohibited along Depot Road from the traffic lights to Hitching Post Road, according to Chatham police, in order to keep Depot Road clear for emergency vehicles. There is no parking along Route 28.

Police officers will assist with parking at the community center, elementary school, Oyster Pond and Colonial lot off Stage Harbor Road. Rain dates are Oct. 6 and 7 at 5 p.m., also at Veterans Field.