After months of public and private dialogue, it appears Clear Space Theatre Company has reached a truce with neighbors who opposed plans for a new 25,600-square-foot theater on Rehoboth Avenue.
During a planning commission meeting March 8, Sussex Street residents Mark Betchkal and Ron Bowman, neighbors abutting the property to the north on Sussex Street, agreed they would support the project if Clear Space removed the 28-space parking garage and reduced the number of seats. Doing so, they said, would lower the height of the building and eliminate the sound and engine pollution associated with the vehicles.
The elimination of parking and reduction of seats was proposed by Clear Space Theatre Company Board of Director Chair Carl Schloegel after planning commission members pressed on the need for nearly 300 seats. He said the idea is to build for 30 years from now, but if adjusting those two elements helped move things along, there would be room for discussion.
Currently located at 20 Baltimore Ave., in an old church, the theater company first revealed its proposal for a new home at 413, 415 and 417 Rehoboth Ave. during a planning commission meeting in October. The lease on the space in the church expires in 2020.
A month later, during a second public vetting, neighbors abutting the property to the north on Sussex Street – Betchkal and Bowman – voiced concerns over the proposed building’s height, which was 53 feet at its highest point, and traffic associated with the parking garage.
Three months later, in February, during a Rehoboth commissioner workshop, Clear Space Theatre Company Executive Director Wesley Paulson presented a revised plan that meets the city’s 42-foot height requirement by removing the equipment needed for the theater’s fly tower, or theatrical rigging system. Theoretically, if the garage were removed, the building would be shorter by another four feet because the 10-foot-tall garage was designed to be six feet below ground and four feet above.
The theater company has solved the height issue and the neighbors have accepted an olive branch, but the project still faces one significant hurdle – city approval regarding parking.
Parking was the whole purpose for the meeting. During the commissioner workshop in February, Paulson also proposed the possibility of defining performing arts center within city code, and then revise parking requirements to include a certain number of spots on site, but only allowable if there are a certain number of city parking spaces in a 1,000-foot radius. Rehoboth commissioners asked the planning commission to weigh in on the issue.
Under current code, and this could change with a reduction in seats, Clear Space would need a minimum of 64 parking spaces, but as many as 128 depending on how the project is defined – as an institution or retail.
Commission Vice Chair Susan Gay said she didn’t see a way to make the parking situation work within current code restrictions. No matter how parking requirements are figured, by size or by changing code to the number of fixed seats, it’s way off, she said.
The possibility of eliminating the parking garage only added more questions.
Commission member Lee Weber said it will be hard to make a good decision without traffic and parking data. He said he didn’t think it would be too time-consuming, provided the city has access to summer traffic counts.
Commission member Rick Perry said eliminating the parking garage fixed one of the big safety issues – cars trying to exit onto Rehoboth Avenue, with pedestrians using the sidewalk. But, he said, he also doesn’t know if the parking issue will ever be solved.
In the end, the planning commission decided to speak with city staff to see if there were any local traffic experts who could conduct a traffic study before its next meeting in April.