Construction of a new elementary school adjacent to Thomas Jefferson Middle School will impact a number of Arlington performing-arts troupes, which now face a daunting choice: Relocate to other venues during the two-year building process, or try to find a way to carry on despite the loss of adjacent parking.
“It’s not an easy task for us, or any of the other organizations,” said Meghann Peterlin, board president of the Arlington Players, which has spent 43 of the last 44 years putting on three shows each season at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, where currently it is wrapping up its 2016-17 season with the musical “She Loves Me.”
Arlington County Board members on April 22 approved the required permits allowing for construction of the 725-seat elementary school and an adjoining parking garage on land that now provides 214 surface parking spaces next to the theater on South Old Glebe Road. Once the construction project starts, the theater will remain available for use, but the parking area will be off limits.
Besides the Arlington Players, Thomas Jefferson hosts performances by Ballet Nova, the Potomac Harmony Chorus, Opera Nova and a scattering of other troupes throughout the year.
“If you move them . . . they will see a loss in audience,” predicted County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “They rely on identity of where people associate them with. You move, and that’s a cut, a hurt to your organization.”
The county school system has a number of venues that would work for some of the troupes, including theaters that are part of Kenmore and Gunston middle schools and at the county’s three main high schools. County and school officials have pledged to work together to provide options to impacted performing-arts troupes.
“This requires some give and take on the part of all parties,” said County Board Vice Chairman Katie Cristol, who formulated a policy proposal adopted at the April 22 meeting, designed to guide efforts between the county government, school system and impacted organizations.
As for moving to other school-based theaters? “It’s not optimal for either party,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said, because the schools already use them extensively. But John Chadwick, chief of facilities for the county school system, said school leaders will do their part.
“We will work with the principals of those schools to make sure it all works out,” he said.
The ball remains in the court of impacted troupes; they can stay at Thomas Jefferson if they can work through parking issues. Cristol threw cold water on one idea – running shuttle buses from Ballston Public Parking Garage before and after shows – as “a non-starter” from the perspective of some of the troupes.
But, necessity being the mother of invention, some of the impacted arts organizations may try to stick it out, at least for the time being.
“It is our strong belief that moving us to another theater would hurt us far more as an organization than staying where we are,” Peterlin said. The troupe has performed at Thomas Jefferson since its opening in the early 1970s, and “it is an intimate part of who we are as an organization,” she said.
Peterlin pointed to the yearlong closure of the Thomas Jefferson theater after structural issues emerged in the wake of the August 2011 Louisa County earthquake, which rattled the local region. Groups like the Arlington Players were shuffled from venue to venue on a space-available basis, and “we’re [only] just now recovering,” Peterlin said.
Fisette said the final decision on staying or moving for the next two years would rest with the individual organizations. Either way, “we will help do what we can to make it work,” he said.
The new elementary school and adjacent parking garage are expected to be completed by September 2019, according to the school system’s timetable.
Meanwhile, Arlington government officials also are planning to close the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, which currently plays host to the National Chamber Ensemble and some other occasional performances. Fisette promised support for organizations affected by that planned closure, as well.