No Guarantee Theater Will Return
CHATHAM – A proposal to build six single-family homes on the former Monomoy Theatre property will likely clear the way for demolition of five of the seven buildings now on the land.
But while owner Greg Clark of Chatham Productions, LLC, plans to restore the theater building and a historic home on the property, because of the uncertainty tied to the pandemic he could not to commit to the return of live performances.
“We have to go back out to the groups that we were talking to about running a theater program there and see where they stand today,” he said last week. “Our conversation with them about a month ago was that they were hurting very badly themselves, they're trying to maintain what they're currently doing and they're not looking to expand at this point.”
Because of the timeframe involved in the project, it may be two to three years before the theater building restoration is completed. By then, live performances may have returned. “It's a guess, right?” Clark told the HBDC.
The theater has been dark since 2018, when the University of Hartford did not renew its lease to operate a summer program on the campus. Clark bought the property in September 2019 and proposed a zoning change to allow development of condominiums as well as restoration and expansion to the theater building and the Washington Taylor House. At a fall special town meeting, voters rejected the zoning change.
In November, the HBDC denied Clark's request to demolish five of the buildings on the property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd., including two residential structures and the former scene shop. Without a plan of how the property will be redeveloped, commissioners said they were reluctant to approve the request. The owners appealed to the selectmen, who urged Clark to come up with a plan and return to the HBDC.
Plans presented by Clark and his daughter Victoria during a pre-application meeting last Wednesday show the rear of the property subdivided into six lots of between 7,086 and 14,948 square feet each, accessed via a cul-de-sac off Depot Road. The proposal would require a shift in the property lines, with the theater and Washington Taylor House remaining on a separate lot along Main Street. The housing development would be screened from Main Street with trees and other plantings, they said.
The houses would have footprints of a bit less than 2,000 square feet, Victoria Clark said, but the details of the design have yet to be worked out. “Nothing is defined yet,” she said.
Since the property is currently in the general business 2 district, the residential use will require a special permit from the zoning board of appeals, said Central Permit Coordinator Sarah Clark. The planning board will have to approve subdividing the land, she added.
Commissioners are more likely to approve the demolition knowing what the owners have in store for the property, said Chairman Dan Sylver. He suggested the owners go to the planning board before returning for formal approval for demolition. No buildings will be razed before the planning board, zoning board and HBDC approve the project, Greg Clark said.
Given the situation, Sylver mused whether the theater building, portions of which date from the early 1800s, was worth saving. Clark, who has said he plans to seek National Historic Register designation for the theater and the Washington Taylor House, agreed the theater does not have a lot of unique architectural details, but National Park Service guidelines would necessitate restoring at least the exterior.
“The main house has more of the details on it, and they would want that completely restored, which we would” do, he said. Under the previous plan, profits from the condominiums would have paid for the expansion and restoration of the theater, which would have made it debt-free.
“With debt on the property, it would be very difficult” to operate a theater, he said. The planning board is likely to be interested in the future use of the Main Street parcel, Sylver suggested, in order to determine parking requirements.
Commissioners felt better about the property knowing the director the owners were headed.
“I think this is a much better plan that what was proposed the first time,” said commissioner Steve DeBoer. “It's a good start.”
Sylver cautioned that the commission's review is likely to take some time.
“I feel a lot more positive that we will find a path to get something done on the property in the year year,” Clark said.