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Friday, July 27, 2007

The Last Black Theater: More On The Lorraine Hansberry v Academy of Arts Debacle

Posted By on Fri, Jul 27, 2007 at 6:00 AM

By Chloe Veltman

The longer the real estate struggle between the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Academy of Art University continues, the more anxious the directors of the theatre are becoming about making sure the public hears their side of the story.

"The Academy's media machine has been releasing information that is not strictly true, and the Chronicle had no reason to doubt it at that time," the media relations rep for the company wrote in an email to me.

He was responding to a query I sent earlier asking for more information about the allegation made against the Lorraine Hansberry by the Academy that the theatre company had failed to renew the lease on its building in downtown San Francisco when given the chance in 2005.

Here's what I learned in a phone conversation with the Lorraine Hansberry's artistic and executive directors, Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter:

Williams: In the summer of 2005, Sutter Taylor [the present owner of the building in which the theatre is housed] came to us and told us that they would be tearing down the building to create condos. We spoke to our lawyers and decided that we had no choice but to sign an agreement to terminate our lease in July of 2007, in exchange for which, Sutter Taylor would give us free rent up until the expiration of the lease as well as office space. The owner also agreed to ease our transition into a new space.

Less than two months after we signed the agreement, we were told that the Academy of Art University had purchased the building. We then realized that the agreement we had signed was no longer good.

Easter: When the building changed ownership in 2005 from the YWCA to Sutter Taylor, Sutter Taylor warned us that it would be making radical changes. But when the Academy of Art suddenly appeared on the scene, we felt like we had been made victims of a bait and switch. We were forced to sign away the lease because of the demolition plans, but before the ink was dry, the Academy came along with no intention of demolishing the building. The new owner plans to turn the theatre into a private gym for its students. It feels like Sutter Taylor and the Academy of Art have been working together on this, but of course there's been no disclosure to that effect.

Sutter Taylor say they would like us to stay. They have endorsed us. But there's nothing they can do to prevent the new owner from kicking us out.

We've been trying to enter into a dialogue with the Academy, but our letters, calls and emails, until very recently, fell on deaf ears. The first time we got an official response from the school was in June. The communications only began late in the process which exacerbated an already unhappy situation.

We dislike being in this state of limbo and would like to have this problem resolved by the end of July and avoid a legal confrontation. We don't want a battle with the Academy. Supervisor Peskin said that we can hold hearings on the matter at City Hall. It's just a question of scheduling dates. We've received a lot of support from the community -- we've gotten close to 2,000 letters so far.

It's a shame that we should be in this situation with the Academy. Before this issue came along, there were great synergies between the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Academy of Art University. The students have participated in our shows. Photographers from the University have taken production photographs for us. I hope we can find a way to reach an agreement quickly and without having to put more public pressure on the Academy's leadership.

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David Downs

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