Facing continued delays on the approval of a new Rehoboth Avenue theater complex, Clear Space Theatre Company has renewed the lease for its Baltimore Avenue location.
Founded in 2004, Clear Space has been operating in the old Epworth United Methodist Church property on Baltimore Avenue since 2010. The lease was due to expire Dec. 31. In anticipation of the lease expiring before construction was complete on its proposed theater buildings at 413, 415 and 417 Rehoboth Ave., Clear Space had reached an agreement with the city to use the convention center during the 2021 theater season. However, the convention center has been closed since March due to COVID-19, and there has been no indication by city officials the space is going to reopen anytime soon.
In an interview Oct. 30, theater Executive Director Wesley Paulson said he wasn’t happy about renewing the lease for another five years, but, he said, they had to do something. The lease was renewed this past summer, he said.
Clear Space isn’t going anywhere, but the current home is too small, said Paulson. It’s a difficult place to work and it's stifling the theater’s progress, he said.
“We need a new home,” said Paulson.
Paulson’s comments came the day after the first leg of an appeal hearing conducted by the city’s commissioners was postponed halfway through due to a medical emergency. He said he was frustrated by the continued delays.
The planning commission held a public hearing on two site plans in August – one for Clear Space Theatre, a 256-seat traditional theater at 415 Rehoboth Ave., and one for Rehoboth Spotlight, a rehearsal theater at 417 Rehoboth Ave. Both were approved by 7-2 votes.
It was the second set of plans submitted by the theater. Clear Space first revealed a one-building theater covering all three lots in October 2018. The building drew opposition because of its size, failure to meet parking requirements and other safety problems. Clear Space revealed its plans for the two-building layout in May.
Nearly two dozen citizens filed an appeal within days of the August approval. Among other things, the appeal argues much of the application was illegible to the public, that key evidence was not submitted to the city in time for the public to meaningfully participate in the hearing, that several members of the nine-member planning commission illegally prejudged key factual issues, and that inadequate conditions were imposed as part of the approval.
There was progress made during the appeal hearing, but a conclusion was not reached.
City Solicitor Glenn Mandalas represented the planning commission, while Clear Space was represented by attorney Eugene Lawson. The two men made multiple motions to dismiss – for appellants not paying the correct filing fee; for appellants not having standing; for not signing the appeal; and not indicating they were filing “pro se,” a legal term which means representing themselves.
For the most part, the commissioners were split into two groups – Mayor Stan Mills, Commissioner Susan Gay, Commissioner Patrick Gossett and Commissioner Jay Lagree were against dismissal. Commissioner Pat Coluzzi, Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski and Commissioner Richard Byrne voted to dismiss. All seven voted against the dismissal based on a motion that incorporated not signing the appeal and the pro se issue into one motion.
That is where the appeal hearing stopped. Commissioners took a lunch break, but instead of resuming the hearing, Mills said a medical emergency had taken place during the break. Attorney Max Walton, who was conducting the hearing for the city, recommended postponing the remainder of the hearing. Commissioners agreed.
In an email immediately following the abrupt ending to the hearing, Mills said the plan is to secure another date to continue. He said, following lunch, the commissioners had planned to address alleged improper participation by a planning commission member, conflict of interest by Mandalas, improper site visits and other process-issue motions.
Mill said the hearing could take place Thursday, Nov. 12, because it is already reserved for the second leg of the appeal – a hearing on the merits. He said if Nov. 12 is selected to finish the meeting, then there would be a need to select another date for the remaining portion of the appeal.
“There are a lot of parties to check in with for their availability before we can firm up dates,” said Mills.
In the meantime, Paulson said the continued delays are hurting the theater’s fundraising efforts. He said there are multiple donors who are sitting on their checkbooks waiting for the approval process to be complete.