So there Theatre Exile was, minding its own business, interacting with South Philadelphia and its East Passyunk Avenue district audiences, during this, the company’s 20th anniversary season. As South Philly’s only theater complex and resident company, Theater Exile isn’t only part of the neighborhood to put on rousingly original dramas and comedies. Exile extends itself via educational programs at area schools on a regular basis. Plus, it’s always fun to walk your dog through Wharton Street Park and watch the stage crews hammering away outside the corner of 1340 S. 13th Street.
That’s what makes the next bit of news all the more galling: “The landlord put the building up for sale,” says Joe Canuso, Theatre Exile’s Founding Artistic Director. “I mean, they offered it to us, first, as we had another year left on the lease. But, we were not in position to raise that kind of money in the short time he gave us. He had a figure in mind that was pretty outrageous, so, we couldn’t do it, even though the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC) tried helping us raise money.”
Canuso was pleased that PARC, and the neighborhood in general, didn’t want Theatre Exile to disappear. He was heartened to hear the offers to aid with funding to keep Exile on that block. Still, the property’s owner wanted to move fast as he had a great, solid offer from a reputable Philly developer. “Long story short, those same developers (Noah Ostroff and Mickey Murray) got the building,” says Canuso of the new owners who wanted to move fast on their vision of a 23-unit apartment complex (neither Ostroff nor Murray responded to our request for comment).
That the story doesn’t end there is where things get really interesting. Recognizing that Theatre Exile had yet another year on their lease to honor, Canuso and Deborah Block (Theatre Exile’s Producing Artistic Director) negotiated with the new owner-developers that if Theatre Exile left a year early, and broke its lease, would Ostroff/Murray be interested in building a theater at that same zoned-commercial property (on the first floor), much in the same fashion as Callowhill’s Underground Arts venue below the Wolf Building’s living spaces?
“They were,” exclaims Canuso, stating that much back-and-forth negotiation occurred along with the usual developer’s surveys about how much its designs would change (Exile would be a basement theater with a first floor lobby/ticket area).
The sole sticking point – and this is true of so many negotiations in South Philly – became the parking. According to city ordinance, a property owner can have a building with up to 24 apartments and not have to worry about providing parking. Add a theater or some commercial property, however, and that same developer must provide 13 parking spaces. “Suddenly, they’re saying that if that is the case, the deal was off,” notes Canuso. “So, for us to get into our former space without the necessary parking, we had to have a variance from the zoning board.
Luckily for Theatre Exile, they take a lot of surveys about the audiences that was perfectly admissible for the board: most of its attendees don’t drive to Exile. They walk because they live in the neighborhood. Or they bike. Or they take some form of public because they are blocks away from the Broad Street Subway. Or people get there via cab and Uber.
“So, we were given the variance from the zoning board,” says Block with relief, who then went on to discuss how the developers have been great and the architects, Landmark Architectural Design, have been terrific. “We’ve worked with Landmark’s Vincent Mancini and Agata Reister, had many interactions with them and they have been incredibly responsive. We’ve seen the designs and it will be a beautiful building.”
For now, Exile’s 2017/2018 season will occur at the Latvian Society at 531 N 7th St., starting October 12 with “Ideation” by playwright Aaron Loeb, with Jackie Sibbles Drury’s “Really” (January 2018) and Michael Hollinger’s “Sing the Body Electric (April 2018) to follow. After that, if things move as swiftly as the developer wishes, Theatre Exile could be back in South Philly within a year.
And just in case, we were wondering how this went off without too much of a hitch – there is one.
“There seems to an appeal started by one person who wants to push the envelope, who wants that parking to be provided by the developer, who won’t do it – so it’s a Catch 22,” says Canuso.
“Most of the neighbors didn’t have an issue with Theatre Exile, but rather that the apartment building was going up with 23 units without additional parking,” says Block. “I agree that 23 units without parking might be an issue, but it is within their right to do that. I am hoping that their target clients will be Indego or ZipCar folks. The building will have a green roof and that will allow them to have up to 24 units. But I think the building is well designed and will be a beautiful addition to the neighborhood.”
Canuso doesn’t expect to lose the appeal, but if they do, Theatre Exile will go back to square one and find another space. “Definitely in South Philly, too. Not just because Deb and I live in the neighborhood, but because our roots are here. We’re very connected to the community, have our outreach program here, where we work with kids at Southern High and Andrew Jackson and we’re the only theater company in South Philly. This will always be Theatre Exile’s home.”