Community Benefits Meeting Crumbles Over Shakespeare Theatre’s Refusal to Listen to the Community

At the community benefits meeting on Thursday, Southwest residents reiterated our position:

  • We want construction of within-zoning housing at 501 Eye Street SW.
  • Nothing Shakespeare Theatre has to offer is worth compromising our neighborhood for.

Southwest spoke loud and clear. And Shakespeare Theatre again refused to listen.

Approximately seventy Southwesters attended the meeting. Approximately forty were from the four townhouse management areas surrounding the property. The remaining attendees generally consisted of neighbors from Harbour Square, Tiber Island, Waterside Towers Townhouses, Waterside Towers Commons, The View, Carrollsburg, 700 7th Street, and Amidon-Bowen Elementary School parents.

Sadly, some of the attendees from outside the townhouse management area got their first taste of how little interest the Shakespeare Theatre has in listening to the community.

The meeting, which occurred in the Amidon-Bowen Elementary School cafeteria, was moderated by the former President and now Treasurer of the Amidon-Bowen Parent Teacher Association (PTA), Martin Welles. Neighbors sat at seven tables with ten people at each table plus a table spokesperson that Shakespeare Theatre insisted be a Shakespeare Theater representative. If Shakespeare Theatre consulted any best practices related to community engagement, that wasn’t evident at the meeting. Shakespeare Theatre dictated the ground rules, and the first one was to “obey the event format.”

Conversation doesn’t occur when one party is obeying and the other is dictating.

Under DC law, public benefits [community benefits] are features of a Planned Unit Development that would benefit the surrounding neighborhood or the public in general “to a significantly greater extent than would likely result from development of the site under the matter-of-right.” Community benefits are not supposed to be a way to circumvent zoning requirements or sidestep the need for community approval of the overall project. Time and again, the community has said Shakespeare Theatre’s plans for the site are inappropriate. On Thursday night, all the tables made clear that no zoning change was desired at the site, and no benefit could be offered that would compensate for the damage to our neighborhood, including the school, as a result of construction of a large office/apartment complex at 501 Eye Street SW.

With one exception, the Shakespeare-appointed table spokesperson refused to record neighbor comments about keeping the zoning the same. At least four-fifths of those present found their voice silenced, dismissed, or altogether ignored. Even at the table where the table moderator reluctantly recorded neighbor comments, those comments were ultimately rejected by the overall Shakespeare Theatre representative.

After the false discussion phase, former PTA President Welles noted that his own suggestions had largely been turned down, and he said he understood others had been subjected to the same refusals. He wanted to know whether the participants thought it was even worthwhile having the benefits listed by the STC moderators read out aloud.

The response from the assembly was a single loud “NO!”

Given the lopsided response, Welles said he would not go through with the reading of requested benefits. He relinquished moderation to Shakespeare Theater. Welles, along with approximately 60 neighbors, walked out of the meeting.

Shakespeare Theatre’s shameful conduct begs the question: What was the purpose of the meeting? The only answer can be: Another false attempt to show that Shakespeare Theatre is listening to the community. They are not.

An organization that is listening wouldn’t have dictated ground rules and put their own lackeys at each table. They would have let each table appoint its own spokesperson. An organization that was listening wouldn’t refuse to acknowledge the vast majority of requests from the community. An organization that was listening wouldn’t dismiss repeated, vociferous, widespread neighborhood concerns and requests. Shakespeare Theatre hasn’t done anything to show that it cares about being a good neighbor.

On July 28, 2014, at a meeting at Arena Stage with the community, Chris Jennings, Shakespeare Theatre’s managing director, said that Shakespeare Theatre would not proceed with their plans if the neighborhood objects to the proposal. We object. We object. We object. We don’t want the zoning at the site changed. Shakespeare Theatre can sell the site at a profit and build elsewhere.

Where is the accountability at Shakespeare Theatre? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that went back on such a public statement from its managing director? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that paid $60,000 to a non-profit in return for a historic designation being removed from 501 Eye Street SW so building demolition could begin? How could the neighborhood ever trust an organization that purports to be listening, when in fact all we see them doing is attempting to silence, dismiss, and ignore the community they want to be part of?




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