Wednesday, October 30, 2013

whither the flower theatre project?

The Flower Theatre today. Photo courtesy of Chip Py.
After being vacant for five years, the Flower Theatre will once again become a church. Owner Greg Fernebok of Bethesda-based Harvey Companies recently told the Voice that he's signed a 10-year lease with a congregation to occupy the long-shuttered Art Deco movie house in Long Branch.

While it's good to see the space occupied again, it's a setback for the Flower Theatre Project, an initiative to bring this long-vacant and underused space back to life. So it seems appropriate to look back of what we've done and what will happen next.

Back in April 2012, I was sitting in the living room of my friends Amanda and Lawrence Hurley, who were telling me about how they wanted more things to walk to in Long Branch. Unemployed and looking for a project, I proposed holding a charrette, or design workshop, to envision what the Flower Theatre could be.

In August, we brought 30 residents, businesspeople and community leaders together to offer their thoughts for what the space could be. We put together a report exploring the social and economic issues affecting the theatre, and laid out potential visions for what it could be.

And our ideas took root. Al Tetrault, a professor at the University of Maryland, had his economic development and historic preservation class look at ways to bring back the theatre that were financially possible. A music promoter in Los Angeles inquired about renovating it and booking shows there, but disappeared soon after.

My Dream For Long Branch
This board on display at El Golfo reads "My dream for Long Branch is/Mi sueño para Long Branch es."

Back in Long Branch, we started organizing. With help from folks like Paul Grenier and Jeff Gipson of Montgomery Housing Partnership, Carlos Perozo and Art Cobb of the Long Branch Business League, and neighbors Victor Salazar and Melinda Ulloa, we made connections in the Long Branch community and beyond. And Ada Villatoro, owner of El Golfo, graciously gave us a big round table each month for regular meetings and dinners.

We got in touch with Greg Fernebok, who explained that the theatre is in bad shape and needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations. Realizing that what we wanted to happen could take a very long time, we came to him with one simple request: what if you turned the marquee on at night?

He said "I'll look into it"; a couple of weeks later, I was driving down Flower Avenue and I saw the theatre lit up. I was so excited I stopped my car in the middle of the street.

Throughout the winter and spring, we attended Discover Long Branch events at different businesses, made new friends, and even got to ride a giant tricycle. We worked with MHP, IMPACT Silver Spring and a raft of other organizations to publicize the Long Branch Super Block Party, where another group of Maryland students created public art to celebrate the theatre and the larger community.
The Movie Cave
The Movie Cave, one of several art installations from the UMD art and architecture studio on display at the Long Branch Super Block Party.

We also testified at public hearings for the now-approved Long Branch Sector Plan. There was a lot of debate about designating the entire Flower Theatre and shopping center a historic landmark, which preservationists supported, but the owner did not. Stuck in the middle, we actually chose not to take a position on it in the hopes the two sides would find a compromise.

Both the Planning Board and the County Council agreed that the best solution was to preserve the theatre's façade, but not the rest of the structure, arguing that it was in bad shape, not historically significant, and would make the redevelopment everyone wanted economically infeasible.

By the spring, the idea of turning the theatre into some sort of public venue, like a market hall, had gained traction. In May, Paul Grenier from MHP arranged a meeting between Greg and Garth Rockcastle, an architect and professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Garth had some radical ideas for the space, and Greg was willing to listen.

I don't know what happened after that. The Flower Theatre Project started as a way to fill the time while I was unemployed; then it became a passion; then we all got busy. A few weeks ago, Mike Persley, a student reporter for the Voice, reached out to me and I told him our story. Then he emailed me: Did you hear Greg rented the theatre to a church?"

At our charrette, we came up with five principles for what the theatre should be, one of which was that it should be an anchor that draws people to the neighborhood (thus creating spillover traffic for other businesses) all day, every day. A church will probably sit empty six days a week, making it a drag on the rest of the neighborhood.

But I could be wrong: there are churches that try to invite the community in and hold activities throughout the week, both religious and secular. Besides, having something in that space is better than letting it sit vacant and decay even longer.

I guess this means the Flower Theatre Project is over, for now at least. In an area where so many people seem focused on stopping change, it was exhilarating to spend time in a neighborhood where people demand it. Long Branch is already a strong neighborhood with great neighbors, business owners and community leaders, and it has the potential to become even greater.

For that reason, I'm confident the Flower Theatre will become a beloved community landmark once again in some form. But we just have to wait a little longer.


Unknown said...

There is no reason to assume that becoming a church will limit the theater to just one day a week. At Saint Luke Lutheran in Silver Spring, the church is busy from morning to night, seven days a week, with activities both sacred and secular, including a food bank, clothing distribution ministry, homeless hospitality during winter, AA meetings, scout meetings and so forth.

Casey A said...

Sounds like it might be a good time to get in touch with the folks who run the church to see if you can get them interested in programming that will be consistent with the desire to activate the space seven days a week.