Supporters of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater win delay of encroaching development

An artist’s conception of a proposed apartment building that would be constructed next to, and above, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (right), as presented to the City Planning Commission on Jan. 25, 2022.
The East Liberty landmark would not be displaced by a proposed six-story apartment building, but advocates want assurances.
by Rich Lord, PublicSource

A developer’s plan to build apartments beside and above East Liberty’s landmark Kelly Strayhorn Theater drew heated opposition from artists, activists and neighborhood residents at a hearing of the City Planning Commission, which opted to postpone its vote pending further discussions.

McKnight Realty Partners owns the Penn Avenue parcel which includes the theater and three other buildings. It wants to demolish a one-story building and construct a six-floor structure with retail space on the first floor and 38 apartments — including four affordable to low-income households — above.

The new building would cantilever above the Kelly Strayhorn. The developer’s team pledged that the theater’s operations would not be affected during or after construction. City Councilman Ricky Burgess and a neighborhood group called the Village Collaborative of East Liberty weighed in to support the proposal.

The commission, though, heard testimony in opposition from 25 people, most of whom urged that the developer first do a better job of communicating with the diversity-focused theater’s board and staff, and perhaps extend its lease which expires in 2029.

An artist’s rendering of the retail-and-apartment building which McKnight Realty Partners has proposed for an East Liberty parcel.

With just seven years left on its lease with McKnight, the theater has “no leverage to raise funds for a building that is in need of repairs,” said Adam Golden, vice chair of the board of the Kelly Strayhorn. He characterized McKnight’s communications to the theater’s management as “sometimes dictatorial,” and urged that they work toward “a partner-like relationship.”

Singers, dancers and other artists joined the virtual hearing to voice support for the theater.

“I will never stop hoping that big developers will work with community leaders to build into communities rather than over them,” said Anna Hale, a musician who performs under the moniker Swampwalk. “Let’s collaborate, and honestly, let’s care about the community.”

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