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Rehoboth’s Clear Space Theatre regroups after commissioners reject new buildings

Opponents say officials failed to submit ‘code compliant’ application

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(Blade file photo)

The Rehoboth Beach Board of Commissioners voted for the second time in eight months on June 30 to overturn a decision by the beach resort city’s Planning Commission to approve plans by the Clear Space Theatre Company to build a larger theater and adjacent rehearsal theater in a new location.

Supporters of the theater project, including many of Rehoboth’s LGBTQ residents and summer visitors, expressed outrage over the Board of Commissioners 4 to 3 vote to reject the Planning Commission’s approval and deny the Clear Space application to build its proposed new theaters on Rehoboth Avenue, which serves as the city’s main commercial boulevard.

The four commissioners voting to overturn the theater’s approval were Rehoboth Mayor Stan Mills, gay Commissioner Patrick Gossett, and fellow Commissioners Susan Gay and Jay Lagree. The three who voted against overturning the approval were gay Commissioner Edward Chrzanowski, lesbian Commissioner Pat Coluzzi, and Commissioner Richard Byrne.

The controversial vote to overturn the theater project approval came in response to an official appeal against the Planning Commission’s Feb. 26 approval of the project filed by 63 Rehoboth homeowners or renters, including D.C. gay attorney Harvey Shulman, who owns one of the homes near where the new theater buildings were to be built.

Shulman said at least 15 percent of those who signed on as appellants are gay. He and other opponents have said the two proposed theater buildings — a 14,949-square-foot main theater and a 9,950-square-foot rehearsal theater — are unsuitable in the three lots on Rehoboth Avenue where they were proposed to be built. Opponents say the two theater buildings would abut a residential neighborhood that would suffer undue noise, traffic congestion, and parking problems caused by the theaters.

Clear Space submitted the two-theater building proposal after the Board of Commissioners refused to approve an exception to the zoning code requested by Clear Space for an earlier plan for one larger 25,599-square-foot theater building. City officials noted the zoning code required any building larger than 15,000 square feet to provide 100 or more indoor or onsite parking spaces, which Clear Space said it did not have the financial resources to fulfill.

In a development that angered the opponents, Clear Space submitted a new plan for the two smaller buildings, which under the zoning code does not require Clear Space to provide any parking spaces for the project.

Clear Space has said its site plan would address noise and parking issues and it complies with the city’s zoning code. Others supporting the theater have argued that anyone who chose to buy a home adjacent to a busy commercial street like Rehoboth Avenue should expect to deal with some noise and parking issues, which for years residents of the popular beach resort town have managed to deal with.

The commissioners who voted to overturn the Planning Commission’s approval of the project cited as their main concern the contention by Shulman and the other appellants that the Planning Commission approved the project without ever having received or seen a code-complaint application, including a code-compliant set of drawings or plans for the project. The appellants said the Planning Commission allegedly only had in its possession an earlier application that was not in compliance with the city’s zoning code.

Wesley Paulson, executive director of Clear Space Theatre Company, and Commissioner Chrzanowski each told the Washington Blade that the Planning Commission was informed by the city’s building inspector that the Clear Space application and building site plans fully complied with all city codes.
The two pointed out that the building inspector, in consultation with the Planning Commission, set several conditions based on an earlier Clear Space application that had a minor code violation related to ceiling heights in one or more stair wells that should be corrected. Paulson and Chrzanowski pointed out that those changes were made.

Chrzanowski said he and his fellow commissioners who voted against overturning the project’s approval strongly disagree with the rationale by Mills, who serves as mayor, and the other three commissioners that the Planning Commission acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in its decision to approve the theater’s application.

“It is my opinion that they were not acting any way in that fashion,” Chrzanowski said of the Planning Commission. “The fact of the matter is these appellants, they don’t care whether or not a drop ceiling in a stairwell needed to be reduced by six inches or not,” he said.

“They just oppose the project because they don’t want it in their back yard,” he told the Blade. “It has nothing to do with a process or a code. They just don’t want it in town, and it’s unfortunate.”

Shulman disputes that claim, saying existing Rehoboth law requires that the Planning Commission could not legally approve an application that never came before it and never became available to the public for review.

“This is not a question of whether you like the theater or you don’t like the theater,” he said. “There is a process that has to be followed. And the public has a right to have input. And that didn’t happen here.”
Among the Clear Space supporters who have criticized the Board of Commissioners who voted against the theater is longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights advocate Peter Rosenstein, who has a residence just outside the Rehoboth city boundary. Among other things, Rosenstein dismisses Shulman’s claim that a significant number of gay residents wanted the Board of Commissioners to overturn the theater’s approval.

“He’s got 20 gays that don’t support it and there are 3,000 that support it,” said Rosenstein. “They can find any excuse they want,” Rosenstein said in response to claims that the Planning Commission never received the theater’s final, revised application.

“The Planning Commission didn’t make any mistake,” he said. “The theater was code compliant. They met every condition the Planning Commission wanted. Technicality or not, they were going to find an excuse to turn it down.”

Paulson, the Clear Space executive director, said he remains hopeful that Clear Space will be allowed to resubmit its final, fully code complaint application to the Planning Commission for another quick and legally mandated approval without having to start the application process over again from scratch.

Supporters say starting over could take six months or more to obtain another round of approval from multiple city agencies and inspectors, a process that would add to Clear Space’s financial burden. They note that the application process has already taken three years since Clear Space first proposed to move from its current location in a rented former church on Baltimore Avenue near the city’s boardwalk.

Paulson said another option under consideration is to take the matter to court in a lawsuit to challenge the legality of the Board of Commissioners action. But he said he would prefer not to take that action if another option becomes available.

Paulson points to Board of Commissioners member Susan Gay, who voted to overturn the Planning Commission’s approval of the project but who stated in an interview on a Rehoboth radio show the day following the Board of Commissioners’ vote that she didn’t believe the theater would have to begin a new application process.

“So, Susan, do they have to go back and start this process all over like a six-month plan again,” Radio Rehoboth talk show host Jeff Balk asked Gay in an early morning interview on July 1.

“No,” Gay replied. “So, part of Plan B is they can submit code compliant plans today,” she said. “I understand they do exist. If that’s the case, submit them. And at that point, I would hope the Planning Commission would expeditiously review it in compliance with the site plan review and it would result in a unanimous approval,” Gay said in the radio interview.

But both Chrzanowski, who wanted the city to approve the theater’s application, and Shulman, one of the lead opponents, each said that under existing Rehoboth law, a project like this must start the application process over again from scratch if it has been rejected twice by the Board of Commissioners.

“When you reject a decision by the Planning Commission for a second time, it’s dead,” Chrzanowski told the Blade. “You need to start from scratch,” he said. “There may be an administrative thing the city could do to help move it along faster, but that certainly is not Commissioner Gay’s decision,” he said. “So, she very much misspoke when she made those statements.”

Shulman told the Blade that if Clear Space chooses to start the application process over again, he believes the opponents of the project would be open to favorably consider the new application.

“If they come back with a new application, everyone will see whether it is code compliant,” he said. “I believe and the opponents have always said this – we will sit down with Donna West, who is the chair of the [Clear Space Theatre Company] board, and try to reach some agreement on what a code compliant application would be, so there is no opposition or, so the opposition is minimized.”

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Comings & Goings

Movahedi opens virtual law firm

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Babak Movahedi

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at [email protected].

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Babak Movahedi on the opening of his virtual law firm. “I started a virtual immigration law firm concentrating on family immigration and business immigration,” he said. “I have had the pleasure of representing a number of LGBTQ+ clients. I can apply for permanent residency of the spouse or other family members of a permanent resident, or U.S. citizen. I am licensed to represent clients in all 50 states.”

In 2018, Movahedi opened a boutique law firm with an international client base. It focused on real estate law, with an emphasis on condominium conversion. Prior to that he served as a Special Master/Magistrate in Miami Beach. In that position he ruled on a variety of matters relating to Miami Beach code, served as a fact finder, and issued rulings. He worked closely with the Chief Special Master. Many will know Movahedi from his work as owner/CEO of a chain of cocktail lounges in both D.C. and Miami. He owned MOVA in both places. 

Over the years, he has worked as a solo practitioner managing the law offices of Babak Movahedi PLLC in D.C. and was CEO of Dupont Title and Settlements. He was a partner in Austin & Movahedi in D.C. He served as chief of party in the United States Agency for International Development and was president, Properties International. He currently is a Visiting Professor, International Law and Business, ESERP School of Business and Social Sciences, Barcelona, Spain. 

Movahedi earned his bachelor’s degree in International Politics, State University of New York, Stony Brook, N.Y.; MBA in International Business, Georgetown University; and Juris Doctor, Georgetown University, and Master of Law in International & Comparative Law, Georgetown University.

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District of Columbia

Drag performers join Gays Against Guns to decry nationwide attacks

‘We’re tired and we’re angry and we’re scared’

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Gays Against Guns held a news conference and gathering at As You Are bar on Dec. 7. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Three D.C.-area drag performers joined members of the New York City-based group Gays Against Guns at a news conference and gathering at As You Are bar on Dec. 7 to speak out against what they say has been an escalating and alarming number of threats against the LGBTQ community and against drag shows in particular across the country.

The Gays Against Guns members along with local supporters came to D.C. to attend the 10th Annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, which took placed that evening at nearby St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. President Joe Biden attended and spoke at the vigil.

Among those present at the press conference and who attended the vigil were Gays Against Guns members wearing white robes and hoods and carrying photos of people who died from gun violence, including victims of the Pulse LGBTQ nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla. in 2016.

Fresh on their minds, they said, was the shooting at the Club Q LGBTQ bar on Nov. 19 that took the lives of five people and injured at least another 17 before the lone gunman was wrestled to the floor by one of the customers and held until police arrived.

“We will represent members of the LGBTQI+ community with these human beings,” said Gays Against Guns organizer Ti Cersely at the press conference, referring to the group members wearing white robes and hoods “They are silent protesters donned in white, holding space for a person that has been killed by gun violence,” he said. “And we’re here to ensure the nation sees these lives and honors and respects them as we do.”

Another speaker at the news conference was D.C.-based drag performer Vagenesis.

“I perform all over the country. And it’s been a privilege to be able to be an artist on this platform as I have been over the past five years,” Vagenesis said, acknowledging two other drag performers standing behind them.

“And we’re tired and we’re angry and we’re scared,” Vagenesis told the gathering. “And I have to be scared walking out of my apartment building. I had to put on a hoodie and sweatpants to get to this event because I was afraid someone would hurt me or bash me for looking like me.”

Added Vagenesis, “As a queer person, as a Black person, as a drag artist, my body has a big target on it. And I can’t feel safe walking anywhere when all I want to do is bring happiness to people.”

The other two drag performers appearing at the press conference and gathering identify as Citrine and Rico Pico, who won the 2021 title of Best Drag King in the Washington Blade’s Best of LGBTQ contest.

“I’m very tired of our community just continuing to be sad in mourning,” Pico Rico told the Blade. “It’s not just our effort but a collective effort from our allies as well,” he said. “Everyone needs to be on the same page to fight what led people to get killed.”

Jay Walker, one of the founding members of Gays Against Guns, said the attacks on drag shows appear to be orchestrated by the same far-right groups and individuals that have long targeted LGBTQ people.

“And there has been, if my estimates are not mistaken, at least 300 separate verbal, physical, intimidation attacks on drag performances, and drag story-telling over the course of the last year,” Walker said.

“Our LGBTQIA2s+ communities are under siege,” he said. “And our federal government and our law enforcement have been ignoring us,” he told the gathering, adding that the sometimes inaction by law enforcement officials “emboldens” groups such as the Proud Boys, Patriot Hunters, and Three Percenters that have been harassing drag shows.  

Walker expressed concern that people not directly impacted by the attacks against drag shows or shootings like those at Pulse nightclub or Club Q in Colorado Springs appear to have the mistaken impression that these anti-LGBTQ attacks won’t put them in danger.

“They need to know that these weak-minded angry small men who commit these atrocities across our country are only going to expand their attacks, believe me,” he said. “It is not going to remain with sexual minorities or performers who wear makeup. It is always going to end up attacking the general public,” he said. “and our law enforcement and our government know that.”

Walker was among those who joined the Gays Against Guns contingent, including the members in white robes, who walked from the As You Are to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church to attend the National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, which began at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7.

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District of Columbia

DC Center, Capital Pride sign joint lease for new offices

LGBTQ groups to operate in historic Shaw neighborhood building

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The Adora is located at 1827 Wiltberger St., N.W. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The DC Center for the LGBT Community and the Capital Pride Alliance, which organizes D.C.’s annual LGBTQ Pride events, announced on Wednesday that they have signed a joint lease to move their operations into a renovated warehouse building in the city’s Shaw neighborhood.

In a Dec. 7 statement, the two organizations said the lease is for a 6,671-square-foot space on the entire first floor of a five-story building at 1827 Wiltberger St., N.W. called The Adora. The building is located steps away from the Howard Theatre and a little over a block from the Shaw-Howard University Metro station.

The new space is more than double the 2,400-square-foot offices the D.C. Center and Capital Pride currently occupy in the city’s Reeves Center municipal building at 2000 14th St., N.W. The Reeves building is slated to be demolished as part of a new development project that will require all its tenants, including the D.C. Center, to move.

The sprawling building, which takes up about half of the narrow, one-block long Wiltberger Street, was built in 1891 as the home of the Holzbeierlein Bakery, according to the online publication Commercial Observer. 

Online real estate listings show it was redeveloped about two years ago with an extension and now includes commercial condominium space on the second and third floors and nine luxury residential condominium units on the fourth and fifth floors.

The statement released by the D.C. Center and Capital Pride Alliance says the first-floor space in the building that the two groups leased currently is un-renovated warehouse space. The statement says the space is being designed for a build out renovation by an architectural firm “with the D.C. Center’s specific needs in mind.” It will include 10 offices and multiple workstations, the statement says.

According to the statement, the renovation is being funded in part by a $1 million grant approved by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser through the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs.

Rehana Mohammed, who serves as vice chair of the D.C. Center’s Board of Directors, told the Washington Blade the renovation work was scheduled to be completed by mid-2023. She said D.C. Center officials were hopeful that the Center and Capital Pride would be able to move into the new space in June or early July.

The statement says the new, larger space will enable the D.C. Center to expand its services to include “dedicated therapy rooms, a larger food pantry for the community food distribution program, and dedicated wellness spaces for meditation, yoga, and counseling.”

It says there will also be an expanded state-of-the-art cyber lounge, a larger Community Closet program, which provides free apparel, and that will incorporate a designated dressing area, and individual lockers providing temporary storage for “unhoused/displaced community members.”

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for the D.C. Center to more fully expand our support offerings and provide vital and integral wraparound care to and for our LGBTQIA2s+ siblings,” D.C. Center Executive Director Kimberley Bush said in the statement.

“When community members come to this new space, they’ll see a broader range of support being offered and an enhanced experience for increasing their health, wellness, and personal security,” Bush said.

“We are very excited to support this opportunity and come together in a new space with fellow nonprofits,” said Ryan Bos, the Capital Pride Alliance executive director. “Collectively and collaboratively, we will better serve the LGBTQ+ community and combine resources to provide a much-needed safe space to gather,” Bos said in the statement.

The statement by the two groups says the new larger space will also allow the D.C. Center to sublease office and desk space to other LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations. As of this week, the Wanda Alston Foundation, Rainbow Families and G3 Associates, an organization operated by local gay activist George Kerr, have confirmed arrangements to sublease space in the new building, the statement says.

“We are proud to reaffirm our support for D.C.’s LGBTQ+ community,” said Mayor Bowser in a statement referring to her office’s awarding a $1 million grant to help fund the D.C. Center’s build out in the new space. “This investment is a reflection of our D.C. values,” the mayor said.

“We know that when we foster community, and when we support organizations that invest in the community, D.C. is stronger and our residents have more and better opportunities to reach their full potential and live happy, healthy lives,” the mayor said. 

‘This is an extraordinary opportunity for the D.C. Center to more fully expand our support offerings,’ said D.C. Center Executive Director Kimberley Bush. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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