Development must protect the arts

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By Stephanie Weisman

OPINION Recently, the Bay Guardian ran an article critical of The Marsh theater's position on the condo development proposed for 1050 Valencia St. (see "Street Fight: Driving us crazy," 11/12). It incorrectly claimed that we oppose the project. Thank you, Guardian, for now giving us the opportunity to set the record straight.

The Marsh does not oppose a proposal to develop condominiums and commercial space next door to us at 1050 Valencia St. Rather, we are trying to get conditions attached to the project's building permit — for both during and after construction — that reflect that this developer chose to build up against a world-renowned, community-based theater. We believe it is reasonable to expect the developer to be a good neighbor.

For almost 25 years, The Marsh has developed solo performances, presenting nearly 700 performances annually with 400 in our Mission location alone. We also offer solo performance workshops and year-round after-school classes and camps for youth where no child — toddler through teen — is turned away because of lack of money. We foster risk-taking and diverse artists from novices to those with worldwide acclaim, giving voice to the vital stories of our times.

The construction plans for 1050 Valencia directly affect our theater space and our ability to continue to host live performance. As currently designed, the plans for both construction and occupancy could mean noise that would drown out unamplified solo performance. The project will also reduce theater lighting and ventilation.

We've seen the history of new affluent residents in fancy SoMa live/work lofts who didn't like living next to the loud music and milling crowds they chose to move near. These wealthy newcomers could afford to hire lawyers and fight expensive legal battles, and they successfully closed down entertainment venues that had defined SoMa for decades. We seek conditions to prevent this from happening to us.

We are requesting the large open deck adjacent to our building be moved behind a sound barrier. We are concerned that when residents have a party or open their windows with music blaring, the sound will disrupt our performances. This endangers our existence. We are also asking for conditions prohibiting the commercial space next to us from having live entertainment that would impact our performances.

Without specific legally enforceable conditions attached to the permits, we have no recourse if the developer or subsequent property owners lack good faith. To date, based on developer Mark Rutherford's treatment of us, we have no reason to believe in his good faith. San Francisco's development history shows that only legally enforceable conditions really protect the public interest over the "lifetime" of a building's construction and use.

The Marsh is a metaphor for the current displacement of people and culture in the Mission District. Miraculously, we were able to purchase our building in 1996, a market low, with the support of our artists, patrons, board, and forward-looking foundation and nonprofit and commercial loan entities. Otherwise, The Marsh would not exist today. We would never have been able to afford today's market-rate rent.

We are now a safe house for artists to develop their work at our space, for the children who take our affordable classes, and the audiences who attend our critically-acclaimed shows. But we are not indestructible. If protective conditions are not written into the building permit, and we end up with disrupted programs and performances, we will not survive artistically or financially.