On borrowed time

Teatro ZinZanni knows a move is in its future, but wants more time to make it

After 18 years entertaining audiences, Teatro ZinZanni founder and artistic director Norm Langill wants his organization to have one more at its current location. 

But the developer for a planned project at 222 Mercer St. says that pre-development work on the site necessitates complete, unabated access once the sale of the property closes in March. 

And as the calendar inches closer to March 15 — the date by which Langill said the part-circus, part-dinner theatre needs to be out — the future becomes more precarious for the organization. 

Washington Holdings is currently under contract to buy the land from the Seattle Opera, with plans to build a pair of residential towers with ground-level retail space. 

Maria Barrientos, the developer for the project, said the location presents an opportunity to activate the north side of Mercer Street, while providing a place to live for hundreds in a good, walkable area with transit service. 

“We envision many of our residents dining in the neighborhood and attending the many shows across street and walking and biking to work in downtown Seattle and nearby South Lake Union,” she said in a statement. 

The size of the future development is dependent on the city’s ongoing Uptown upzone process. Barrientos said one design scenario would cap the height of construction at 85 feet across the site, while another would have a tower up to 160 ffeet tall along with a smaller midrise building and open space. Depending on the looming zoning changes, somewhere between 275 and 350 new apartments could be built. 

Because the project intends to participate in the city’s multifamily tax exemption program, at least one-fifth of the units would be priced between 65 and 80 percent of the area median income. Barrientos also said the development will adhere to requriements under the Mayor’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda once they’re finalized. 

Barrientos also mentioned that they’re actively engaged in working within the context of the Uptown Urban Design Framework to be responsive to the community’s vision and goals for the neighborhood. 

But Langill isn’t looking to stop the development. However, he believes that the environmental planning and design process means it will be years before construction will begin. 

Langill said he is still attempting to negotiate with Washington Holdings to accept a new lease, “which would give us time for an orderly transition to some new sites that we’ve been working on.” He called his proposal “reasonable,” and said the organization would pay rent, assume any liability for remaining on the site, and agree to an “ironclad promise” to leave by a certain date. 

In any case, the search is on for a new location, no easy ask. Langill said the hope is to find a future home with the same qualities as the current site. That means parking, being easily accessible, in a safe neighborhood, and ample space. 

“If you were to go out right now and look for 20,000 square feet of flat land between Queen Anne, Michigan Street, the Waterfront, and I-5,” he said, “you would find nothing.”

He said he was “shocked” by the news of the sale, and that the organization was having “positive exploratory discussions” as recently as December.  

But Barrientos, said in a statement that there are several aspects to the pre-development phase of the project that make such an arrangement unfeasible. 

Once the sale closes, Barrientos said one of the “immediate actions” will be to drill under the surface of the site to evaluate soil and subsurface conditions to inform what can be built and where. She said the eastern half of the block in particular has not been adequately studied.

Other work during that pre-development period will include geotechnical engineering and foundation design, further site and structural design, and the verification of the locations of below-grade utilities. To complete that work, she said, water and electrical service will need to be shut off to the site. 

All of that information must be submitted to the city as part of the permitting process.

Barrientos also noted that during the fall tWashington Holdings worked closely with the Opera to grant a 45-day lease extension to ZinZanni through its current winter run. 

Langill said when the organization initially took over the site in 1998, it used an environmental report conducted for the Kreielsheimer Foundation that included soil sampling and a site assessment, which ZinZanni then used in its own planning. In 2007, he said, all of the utility placements were marked.

“It seems like it is more reasonable to accept our check, take our environmental reports, we’ll work with them on the pre-development stuff they have to do, rather than letting the site be vacant with a fence around it,” he said. 

If Teatro ZinZanni doesn’t get more time, Langill said 100 jobs are at risk, and it puts the organization itself “in harm’s way.” 

The organization has also sought community support, with thousands signing an online letter on ZinZanni’s website urging Washington Holdings to let it stay while a new home is found. Among those to sign on are the members of Pearl Jam, Heart’s Ann Wilson, and local restaurateur Tom Douglas. 

In any case, the redevelopment of the site is coming. But Langill is hoping there’s room for compromise regarding the immediate future. 

“We’re in total support of the Opera selling the property,” he said. “They had to do it to build a beautiful new building down the street. The new development they have here is going to have affordable housing in it, it’s a terrific development. We’re just, very simply, asking for time rather than giving us basically eight weeks. It’s just too abrupt.”

To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.