Tale of the tent

Neighbors challenge expansion of Sacramento’s theater district

This new city parking garage will serve the expanding theater complex.

This new city parking garage will serve the expanding theater complex.

It’s a dispute that puts two causes that most people tend to automatically support on opposing sides of the table.

Most people would probably agree that the Music Circus series and the Sacramento Theatre Company—nonprofit organizations which share an aging (and increasingly decrepit) complex of 50-year-old cinder-block buildings and a gravel parking lot at the corner of 15th and H—are long overdue for a bit of sprucing up.

And almost everyone would agree with the proposition that it’s important to preserve remaining units of affordable apartments and studios in the downtown area.

But earlier this month, the two theater companies and the city of Sacramento found themselves in a legal duel over a lawsuit filed by a neighborhood group, with another round of courtroom action expected in November on a second lawsuit filed by another party.

At issue is an $11.3 million upgrade to the old theater complex at 15 and H streets that was built decades ago with financial assistance from Eleanor McClatchy, the legendary president of the company that publishes Sacramento Bee.

A major patron of the arts, in 1951 McClatchy lured Los Angeles entrepreneurs Russell Lewis and Howard Young into establishing a series of summertime musicals in a tent that was erected in the parking lot next to what was then known as the Civic Repertory Theatre.

The site has been a shared-use project ever since, with the group now known as the Sacramento Theatre Company (STC) producing shows indoors from October through May, and the Music Circus series taking over during summer to do seven weeks of musicals in a tent pitched next door. Both groups lease the buildings from the city.

The two theater companies and the city announced an upgrade in October 1999, known as the H Street Project. The buildings where the STC stages its shows would be renovated from the box office to backstage areas.

And for the Music Circus, a permanent building. Using Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric, similar to the airport in Denver, it would look and feel like a tent. But it would be insulated (keeping heat out, and sound in), with permanent seats, more restrooms and air conditioning.

Lewis said the touring Broadway Series shows (presented at the Community Center Theater by the Music Circus management) won’t move to the new facility. “The ‘new tent’ will be used only in the summertime,” Lewis said. “We’re not allowed in except between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Besides which, the Broadway Series shows literally wouldn’t fit in-the-round.”

The “new tent” would seat around 2,200 people, a reduction from the current 2,460. But freed from the need to erect and dismantle the tent, the 49-performance summer series would gradually expand by several weeks to 87 performances, including a few matinees, and a new concert series.

That expansion has drawn the ire of neighborhood resident Alicia Wenbourne, who, with several others, filed a lawsuit as the Mansion Flats Working Group, seeking to stop the project.

“You get 2,500 people tromping through to go to the Music Circus—every night,” Wenbourne said. “It’s greatly disrupted the neighborhood.”

The proposed upgrades would not displace existing housing, but Wenbourne believes the lower-cost apartments and studios nearby will gradually be driven out by the disruptions.

“There are 85 units on the 1400 block face of G Street alone. That’s a very dense block. But the city seems to think that if people live in apartments, they’re not entitled to live in any kind of peace,” Wenbourne said. “Not everyone can afford a detached single family home.”

Wenbourne is also not pleased by the multi-story 1,000-space parking garage that just opened on H Street, across the street from the Music Circus/STC box office. The garage is not officially part of the H Street Project, as city officials say it will also serve the nearby Memorial Auditorium and Community Center Theatre.

But Wenbourne doesn’t like it: “It’s evident to us that they are two parts of the same plan. Three or four weeks after (the city) approved the parking garage, they said, ‘Oh, by the way, the Music Circus will be expanding.’ One could not be done without the other.”

Wenbourne feels the city is basically sacrificing affordable housing west of 16th Street: “There’s a line drawn down 16th … on the east (of the line), residences are protected behind roundabouts and barricades. They’ve blocked them off and protected them from downtown development. But the neighborhood west of 16th has been tossed to whatever development the city wants to do.”

Lewis said he’s tried hard to address neighborhood concerns. He pointed out that this summer, the Music Circus made arrangements for ticket buyers to park in garages at the Sheraton Grand Hotel and the Army Corps of Engineers building. Music Circus staffers—often Lewis himself—directed traffic, seeking to reduce what Lewis called the “long-standing habit of parking on the streets in front of people’s houses.”

Lewis also said, “it’s important to remember that there are a lot of people in the neighborhood that are not in opposition to this project. The number in opposition is really very, very small.” And STC board president Arliss Pollock announced at the September 29 season-opener that “we aren’t going to let four or five dyspeptic people bring this project to a halt.”

Wenbourne confirmed that some neighbors support the Music Circus project. “You have people who live in the neighborhood and aren’t physically impacted by the theaters who think it’s a great idea. … (Our) ad hoc group includes residents and property owners who live within a block of the project.”

Mayor Heather Fargo said, “The city cares about all our renters” and added that while “the northeast quadrant of the central city is where we started traffic controls” like roundabouts, those measures are being extended to other quadrants. Fargo said that the new parking garage and improved street lighting are making things better for neighborhood residents.

“That area’s been designated as an arts and entertainment district for a while,” Fargo noted. “One of the reasons people move to the central city is so they can have easy access to arts venues. A lot of people like to walk to the theater, and feel good that there are opportunities nearby.”

“For a while, the neighborhood was struggling, and people were much more concerned about drug dealing and late night activity. In many ways, the issues that we’re dealing with now are refreshing compared to some of the issues we’ve dealt with before,” Fargo said.

Fargo said she didn’t discount input from Wenbourne’s group, saying, “Yeah, there’s some noise associated with the Music Circus—but it wouldn’t be as nice of a neighborhood without them.”

On September 7, Superior Court Judge Lloyd G. Connelly essentially threw out the Mansion Flats suit, saying that the plaintiffs hadn’t produced enough facts to prove their case. Wenbourne said her group is still deciding whether to pursue an appeal. That leaves the second lawsuit, filed by Anne Burke, to be heard on November 9. Burke was originally part of the Mansion Flats group, but decided to file a lawsuit on her own.

If nothing else, the lawsuits have postponed construction, which was to have begun this month. The work could not proceed because some $8.2 million in financing was to come from the sale of bonds, which can’t be sold while a legal cloud hangs over the project. The $8.2 million is to be paid back over a 20-year period, partly through a facility fee attached to tickets ($3 a ticket for Music Circus, $2.50 for Sacramento Theatre Company).

Now, the Music Circus hopes to “take care of the legal challenges in the fall, get the bonds sold in the winter, and break ground on support facilities in March,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Theater Company—which had programmed around the expectation of construction this fall—has rearranged its season, and will have to work around construction next year as well.

“We may not have rehearsal time here, so may have to bring in a couple of plays (already being produced elsewhere) that we can load into our space,” said Peggy Shannon, STC’s artistic director, who would prefer to stage premieres.

Wenbourne said she’s sorry the STC renovation is held up. “The neighborhood in general has no problem with STC,” Wenbourne said. “When we filed the suit against the city and the Music Circus, STC got swept into it. We actually have no problem with their venue.”