Housing Complex

H Street Playhouse Priced Out of H Street, Looking For New Spot

On the way out.

Back in 2002, Capitol Hill businesspeople Adele and Bruce Robey bought a restaurant at 1365 H Street NE for $300,000 and turned it into the H Street Playhouse, a 100-seat black box that now serves as a home for small theater groups. Since then, hip bars and restaurants have sprung up around it, making H Street the city's buzziest cultural destination—while many of the businesses that had been there for decades have either failed or cashed out and left.

Now, the H Street Playhouse has perhaps become a victim of its own success.

After Bruce died in 2009, Adele sold the property to the local real estate investment firm Century Associates for $1.1 million, and paid for a three-year lease up front with the proceeds. She writes:

It was my understanding that the new owners of the building would keep it as a performance venue when my lease expired. Now apparently that is not going to happen. Or, it could possibly happen if the theater groups are willing to pay "market rent" which in the eyes of these men is in the neighborhood of $55/square foot. Since that works out to something like 20,000 a month, it's obviously not going to happen. Most companies struggle to pay $6,000 (at which rate I lose $2,500 a month). In talking with our resident companies and judging by the daily calls I get for rental space, it is my opinion that if we can find a viable space that we can outfit, we can be up and running and fully booked very quickly.

Robey says she'll be starting a new non-profit to raise money for a new location, and hopes to stay somewhere in the neighborhood, maybe further out on Bladensburg or Benning Road. "We need to be where an audience can reach us without too much hassle but also would like to locate somewhere where our presence can help spark new business development as we did 10 years ago on H," she says.

The Playhouse's lease is up in February of next year. The clock's ticking.

I've reached out to the principals of Century Associates, and will update if they've got anything to say.

UPDATE, Friday, 4:30 p.m. – Joel Kelty of Century Associates says that the $55 figure is "ridiculous," and that if H Street Playhouse does leave, "we'd love to replace it with another tenant that incorporates an arts or performance-related use."

Robey forwarded me an email from the landlord in which they laid out a couple of examples of what H Street properties are leasing for these days, topping out at $55, and told her: "While it may be aggressive to think that rents on H Street can exceed those downtown, we believe the Playhouse has unique characteristics that should allow for a rent in the neighborhood of $45 per SF."

Photo from www.hstreetplayhouse.com

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    Sad. The creation of the H Street Playhouse was a key element in the revitalization of H Street. But clearly "a bad real estate deal" was made, because no long term protections were put in place to preserve the space as an arts facility.

  • Richard

    The crisis over affordable space for performance in the District has now reached immense proportions. The District is going to lose many of its small theatre and dance companies if affordable and public transit-accessible space is not created and protected, and if colleges and universities and larger companies in the city do not adopt more of a "never be dark" attitude and make their space available. Some, like Woolly Mammoth, are already leading in this effort, but so much more needs to be done.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    If the theater owned the storefront, why on earth did they sell it, and then lease it back from the purchasers? Surely they could have seen this coming.

  • Keith

    @ Mr T in DC

    I was thinking the same thing. The gentleman's agreement to keep the property as a performance space just screams bad business. I think Ms. Robey forgot that 99% of people are in business to make money.

  • Tom A.

    Boo. I'd suggest starting a petition stating that the community won't support any non-arts business in that space Unfortunately, whomever rents it will market to hipsters who have never been on H street before. And those people will come running for PBRs and overpriced arugula salads.

    Personally, I won't support a for-profit business in that space. There is PLENTY of empty retail space on the street already. Let's keep this one space for the arts!

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Why did they sell?

    I could understand selling to raise some money, but if the proceeds from the sale just went to pre-pay a lease, then the organization (it would seem) wasn't on very strong financial ground to begin with.

    The whole benefit to owning for a group like that is some degree of cost containment. They gave that up. Why?

  • http://www.twitter.com/capitolhilldc Julia Robey Christian

    My name is Julia Robey Christian, daughter of Adele and the late Bruce Robey. I just wanted to chime in to respond to the questions of why we sold the building in the first place.

    In September of 2009, my father Bruce Robey had an unexpected heart attack in South Carolina. He was hospitalized there for a week before we had him flown back to DC where he was in the ICU for two additional weeks before ultimately passing away as a result of a second heart attack. Following this, we were faced with immense financial obligations and we were forced to find ways to deal those. After months of searching for what we had hoped would be the right buyer, we sold the building, escrowed the rent and property taxes for the 3-year lease back and used the remaining monies to take care of the financial issues that arose from my father's death.

    The decision was an incredibly difficult one to make, as we certainly had no prior intention of ever selling the Playhouse. But, after spending significant time and energy trying to find an alternative solution, the sale of the Playhouse was sadly the only option for us.

    The hope was that we would be able to continue our lease after the 3-year period and my mother and I were confident that the new owners understood the value and history of the Playhouse. Unfortunately, things have just turned out differently.

    We are facing this challenge head on and are bound and determined to relocate within proximity to the original building, as it should be. And of course, if there's anyone out there that would like to help with the effort, please feel free to contact us.

    Thanks,
    Julia

    juliaechristian@gmail.com

  • djdc

    Thanks for chiming in. That's a terrible story.
    Best of luck to you.

  • http://www.thefridgedc.com alexgold

    the fridge <3 h st playhouse. your small indie productions can always find a temporary home here in the meantime! best wishes julia.

    a.

  • Ed

    The Robeys were not a non-profit, and apparently made a decent return on their investment when they had a need to sell. Have they tried to negotiate a continuing lease with the current owner of the property?

    The H Street Playhouse clearly is not fully booked. Maybe Washington doesn't need another minimal facility for new creative groups. There seem to be many small theater sites which are empty most of the time.

  • H STREET FO-EVA

    Ed- the playhouse is booked solid- check the website. 20K a month for the playhouse is insane- like Crazy Eddy, his prices are insane.

  • Dave

    ...and so it begins on H Street. Having anything "priced out" of that market as recently as 5 years ago was unthinkable; now landlords are looking to charge $55 per square foot there.

    Guess the predominant type of business that can sustain commercial rents that high? Bars and restaurants, of course. So guess what's likely to fill the space? Why, a bar or restaurant, of course.

    It's borderline criminal that DC seems unable to create neighborhoods with a healthy mix of food, retail, services and culture. Everything is tipping towards food and high-end retail right now, and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight to it. I guess if all you want out of a neighborhood's character is pricey bars and restaurants, and perhaps a high-end home furnishings store, then there is no shortage of neighborhoods to choose from. And that's a real shame.

  • Lisa Blythe

    Stage managing at H Street is one of my fave memories-I am sad on so many levels to see this happen. It is truly getting harder for the smaller companies to find performance space, let alone rehearsal space.

  • Aidan Hughes

    I have performed in more than one great production at this wonderful space. What a sad loss for DC, and for the family that created it...

  • just sayin’

    I've been ogling the old Capitol Printing Ink building near the Rhode Island Avenue metro station. I'm sure its full of asbestos and soaked in poison. Perfect spot.

  • Mark

    This is so sad. Fuck Century Associates.

  • h street landlord

    1) I love this theater and company.

    2) very sad re death and medical bills.

    3) if you a sell a building for market rate, why would you expect to get below market rate rent? Why should the new owners operate at a a loss when you made a large profit?

    4) bladensburg or benning sound great for a new location! I will continue to support.

  • Bill

    Julia, Thank you to you and your family for all that you have done by opening H Street in the first place. I'm very sorry for the loss of your father and the emotional and financial stress that his passing and the sale of H Street has brought upon you.

    People should not be blaming the family or the new landlords for this situation. If people wanted the space to remain a theater they should have bought it themselves. When Julia's family wanted it to be a theater they bought the property and made it in to one. Why cant other theater people in this town be so proactive instead of waiting until its too late and lamenting the loss of another theater?

    While I would hope that the new owners would keep it a theater I can understand why they wouldn't. But I would hope they would see it as an investment in the community if they own other properties in the area.

  • Richard

    Dear just sayin':

    I just moved to that neighborhood and would happily pitch in on any such makeover!

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  • pragmatist

    H Street Playhouse is not a non-profit. It is a business. A business that has not changed its rates since 2008 http://www.hstreetplayhouse.com/NewRates.htm

    Before we start attacking the owners for raising the rent, we should think about this logically. They bought a building for over a million dollars. They have to pay a mortgage on that property. They have to pay for the upkeep of the facilities etc. They are not running a non-profit or a charity either.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    Yes, agree with others it's very sad you had to sell the store to deal with medical bills and a death in the family. Hope they can find another space soon, and good luck to them in their search!

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @pragmatists

    Just because an organization is a non-profit doesn't mean it's not also a business.

  • Brian

    Come to Anacostia or Congress Heights. Leases are inexpensive and the neighborhood is clamoring for something non social service related.

  • pragmatist

    @Alex B

    I meant to say for profit business. @Tom A had stated that he would not support a for profit business in that location.

    The H Street Playhouse is a for profit business, although they would have much to gain tax wise if they formed a nonprofit.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    @pragmatist

    I have no clue as to what the Playhouse's organizational structure is, but the fact that they rent their space out does not mean they're a for-profit organization.

  • http://NotionsCapital.com Mike Licht

    Way back in the last century, before hipsters roamed H Street, this was the location of French's Fine Southern Cuisine. In all honesty, the food was so-so, but it was a friendly community space in a challenged neighborhood.

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  • JoshWED

    +1 to H-Street Landlord.

  • M Duran

    I was saddened by this news, having moved to H Street seven years ago precisely because of the promise of a burgeoning arts scene. From "The Bluest Eye" to international plays like "The Weir", the H Street Playhouse provides an intimate venue that allows the audience to really connect to the work. The discounts for neighbors and the non-profit community demonstrate it's commitment to the community. Our neighborhood will really be losing a cultural gem that really sets H Street apart from other neighborhoods.

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  • http://none sondra (Clements) Marton

    The H Street Playhouse, use to my home back in the 40's. My father, Claude Clements ran a printing business, his biggest contract was with Kiplinger magazine. My mother and I and my brother moved to Silver Spring in the early 40's. The business later on was taken on by his oldest son, C.T. Jr. I can't believe the place was still there after all that has happened.......We lived above the shop in a very large apartment type place.....time marches on. Mr. Clements, My dad, died in l970 I think....just a piece of history.

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