With Shakespeare Theatre’s legal battle entering its fifth month, friends of the theatre have launched an online petition to back up their legal fight with public support. Identifying themselves only as Susan V, the petition–cleverly called “Boo the 700% Rent Hike on DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company”–calls on the friends of STC to “Stand up for the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Boo LTI’s (Lansburgh Theatre Inc.) act of exploitation.”
The legal dispute goes back 20 years, to the early years of STC’s founding. Built in 1882, The Lansburgh’s Department Store was converted into a mixed use facility in the early 1990s by Gunwyn/Lansburgh Development Corp. Part of that development deal required Gunwyn to build the Lansburgh Theatre and to offer it for use by a charitable organization. To take advantage of tax laws, Gunwyn created the non-profit Lansburgh Theatre Inc. LTI designated STC to be its charitable organization.
Over the last year the two non-profits, STC and LTI, had been in negotiations for a new lease. The old lease expired in June of this year. STC had been paying $70,000 in rent for the theatre. In the new lease LTI wanted them to pay $480,000. When STC refused and the lease expired, LTI moved to evict the theatre from the space.
On June 12 of this year, STC filed a lawsuit to stay the eviction. The rent for the space has since increased to $700,000.
In July of this year, LTI attempted to move the case to Federal Court claiming that the case hinged on the court’s interpretation of charitable tax laws. STC countered that the case was a local matter that dealt with breach of trust and fiduciary duty. Furthermore, STC argued that LTI should be required to pay its legal bills.
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon heard that case and ruled in favor of STC, although he did not require LTI to pay STC’s legal bills. In the ruling the judge said that the legal battle between the two giants had “all the trappings of an epic one over in the Superior Court, and I wish you well.”
With the launch of the online petition, STC has taken its battle with LTI into the public sphere.
In many ways, this “epic” battle is but a common battle writ large. The theatre arts have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in the development of urban America. The rebirth of Washington DC’s downtown happened in no small way because of theatre’s willingness to take its art into less than desirable neighborhoods. For anyone who knows what 14th Street used to be, you know what I’m talking about. When the theatres arrive, the audiences follow. When the audiences follow, the restaurants, nightclubs, and bars are not far behind. When the restaurants, nightclubs, and bars thrive, the real estate becomes more valuable. When the real-estate becomes more valuable, the rents increase. Then, when the rents increase, the arts have trouble staying in the neighborhood. You need only look at what is happening to the H Street Playhouse in Northeast to see what I’m talking about.
To be sure, the theatrical brick and mortar of Washington is fabulous. The new venues that have been built over the last decade are palaces to the imagination. One could easily argue that real estate has an undue influence over our theatre, but that should not take focus away from the fact that this legal battle between giants is really a public battle over the future of theatre and the arts in DC.