Community board members willing to turn over title in exchange for seismic, ADA upgrade
In Northwest Children’s Theater’s ongoing quest to purchase the historic landmark it has called home the past 23 years, the nonprofit appears to have won over one of its staunchest critics.
Gordy Allen, an attorney who has represented citizens resisting the sale, now believes selling the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center to the theater group provides the best chance to preserve the building long term while protecting the legacy of neighborhood activists who acquired the center in 1978 for community purposes.
Allen ran for the NNCC board of directors in February with the goal of protecting the neighborhood’s investment, even if that meant selling the building to a developer likely to demolish the building.
Since then, he has gained an appreciation for the theater’s popularity and the community’s desire to save the building, not to mention its operator’s political clout.
“I became a convert to preservation,” Allen said at NNCC’s board meeting last month, “I don’t care about ownership if you make it so [the building] lasts.”
The Children’s Theater has for years contended that it could not acquire sufficient donations and grants for a full upgrade of the 1911 structure, including seismic retrofitting, without owning the property.
In May, fundraising consultant Mark Sherman told the board that he was prepared to launch a $5.2 million capital campaign on behalf of the theater to underwrite seismic upgrades, including stabilizing the roof and sandstone exterior; and ADA improvements, such as ramps, a new elevator and parking lot modifications. The improvements are also tied to obtaining a long overdue occupancy permit from the city. The permit is hinged upon satisfying a list of life/safety upgrades identified by Portland Fire & Rescue in 2004 and updated in 2008.
The Children’s Theater has so far been unable to afford the major items on that list, but Sherman has talked to potential donors who are enthusiastic about supporting both the arts and historic preservation. These donors may not be so generous if their money is ultimately controlled by another organization, NNCC, with a different mission, he said.
“We think it’s achievable,” Sherman said of the $5.2 million target, “but the Northwest Children’s Theater can’t invest unless ownership is in its hands.”
In the past, Allen and others loyal to the NNCC have been reluctant to surrender ownership without receiving a substantial purchase price and/or assurances of a major investment in the building’s structural soundness and code compliance.
“I came on the board with the idea that it is more probable than not that the building will be torn down at some point because the political authorities will conclude that it is too dangerous to use, and the charitable world will not be willing to supply the funds to make it safe,” Allen wrote in a July 18 email to the NW Examiner.
“Since arriving on the board, my sense of the sentiment of the membership is that most people like the Children’s Theater and would prefer that the building be preserved if funds can be found ($5-$8 million) to fix it up.”
Although now open to this possibility, Allen remains skeptical that the Children’s Theater can accomplish that goal.
However, “the board should cooperate with the Children’s Theater to raise those huge funds so that this preferable outcome is more likely and so that we are not blamed if the Children’s Theater fails.”
Allen insists on a fail-safe provision, which has been supported in theory by the Children’s Theater.
“If the Children’s Theater cannot raise the funds necessary to do the work, then the board has to be able to recover occupancy so that the building can be marketed to other charitable entities that might be able to use and preserve it.”’
And if no such buyer or occupant can be found, at least the property can be sold for redevelopment and the neighborhoods will have resources that can be put to other uses.
Allen described the board as in unanimity on the broad picture he outlined, though details remain unsettled.
Dan Anderson, who was part of the slate elected with Allen in February, said, “I think the entire NNCC board supports this but only with well-defined performance tests and deadlines, where failure to meet the tests would result in reversion of title.”
Children’s Theater founder and Managing Director Judy Kafoury is optimistic that the opening presented by Allen and his board allies will lead to “a win-win for both [organizations].”
Under terms now under negotiation, Kafoury said, “there is a reverter clause that if we did not finish the seismic and ADA upgrades, then the building would revert back to the NNCC board.
“It is true that we need to have ownership of the building in order to receive enough funds to complete all the needed upgrades,” she added, “but we will not begin this work until we have all the funds in hand.”
If the Children’s Theater and NNCC board stay on the same page, the biggest hurdle ahead may be NNCC membership, which must approve a sale by a two-thirds majority. The last time a sale was proposed—in 2006 for $2.1 million—56 percent voted yes and the deal was nixed.
Although no sale price is being mentioned at this time, reports of a proposed $1 price tag circulated earlier this year drew a large turnout to the NNCC annual meeting and resulted in an election sweep of candidates opposed to a bargain-basement transfer.