In downtown Bellevue, a prime theatre space stands empty waiting for money.

Photograph by Aaron Locke

Bellevue’s building boom has so many cranes looming above the skyline that the city looks like the creation of a puppeteer — glass and steel dangling from above make it look like a glistening stage set taking shape right before our eyes. A recession may be stalking the land, but you’d never know it in beautiful downtown Bellevue. After all, popular belief says the Eastside is where the money is.

Many decry downtown Bellevue’s lack of art and soul. Yet hidden inside one of those new residential buildings is something quite unusual . . . a theatre space (or at least the bare bones of one). At the moment it’s just an empty, three-story-high concrete box. Construction of the building is finished, and people have been moving into the apartments above the theatre, but the space itself remains unfinished.

Located at the corner of NE 10th Street and 108th Avenue NE, across from the Bellevue Regional Library and in the heart of what is becoming known as Bellevue’s “Cultural Corridor,” this theatre is the vision of John Su, of the local firm Su Development. Su has had help carrying out his vision from Eric Kenney of the Houston firm the Hanover Company. Together, Su and Kenney have spent almost ten years trying to make this theatre a reality.

What will it take to make the place ready for opening night? About four million dollars, according to a feasibility study commissioned last fall. That amount would put in a lobby, seating for 225 people, lighting, dressing rooms, offices and all the necessary electrical and plumbing work. “Four or five million dollars is not a huge capital campaign,” says John Haynes of the Performing Arts Center Eastside. He should know; as executive director of PACE, he’s in the process of raising 160 million dollars to build a two-thousand-seat hall a few blocks away. “It’s not a lot for something that’s going to do as much good in the community as I think this theatre has the capacity to do.” And based upon his experience, he believes there’s money out there.

So, a group of interested parties — who have been helping the project along from the start — are looking for someone to step in and lead a capital campaign. The team includes representatives from the city, the Bellevue Convention Center Authority, the library, the architects who carried out the study and local arts leaders.

Also needed: somebody to run the joint. Theatre companies on both sides of Lake Washington have been approached, and several have shown interest, but with that much money to raise, and a considerable lease to assume, most of these midsize companies have backed off.

Conceptual design for the theatre that could be at TEN20. Courtesy of Urbanadd and the City of Bellevue.

Our Play Begins | The building is known as TEN20. A companion residential building nearby, called 989 Elements, is home to another of Su’s arts offerings, the Open Satellite gallery.

The story of how the TEN20 Theatre was conceived is not nearly as dramatic as the saga that has unfolded ever since. In 1999, as Su was starting to develop the building, he had his eye on an adjacent corner lot that was owned by the city. He figured having both properties would allow him to expand the scope of his project — but what could he offer the city that might entice them to give him the land?

“One of his architects said, ‘Well, the city needs an arts incubator; why don’t you offer that?’” recalls Mary Pat Byrne, Arts Specialist for the City of Bellevue. In other words, a small, flexible performance space which could be rented out to theatre and dance troupes, a place where groups with limited audiences could create new work and larger followings.

“We truly believe that Bellevue should be the Eastside’s cultural arts leader,” urged Su in a recent funding request letter to the City Council. “In a 1989 report, the City identified three types of venues that would be integral to the cultural development of Bellevue. These three venues were a small 150-seat black box theatre, a midsized 400-seat theatre, and a 1,500-seat performance center. The Meydenbauer Theatre has fulfilled the midsize need, and the 160-million-dollar PACE Center will fulfill the large venue need once it opens in 2011. This little theatre will meet the goals for an intimate venue where local artists and local audiences can grow.”

When Su first made his request, the city balked at the idea of trading the property for an arts center. “But [Su] liked the idea, and decided to include it inside of his building,” Byrne continues. “His new design also made that corner lot into a plaza with an entry into the open space that’s next door to the building. In return, the city allowed him to build parking underneath and sold him the land.”

Su proceeded with his planning. In 2001 the dot-com bubble burst and slowed development for a while, but soon Bellevue was hot again, and Houston’s Hanover Company came to town shopping for properties. They asked Su if he’d be interested in selling his project to them; by that time, he had begun plans for his next tower, which would become the 989 Elements building, and saw this deal as a means of getting the funding. So, in 2005, he sold TEN20 to Hanover — which pledged to honor Su’s plans, including the theatre.

As the building went into construction, Byrne began looking for theatre companies interested in taking on the venue. “Name a small theatre group on the Eastside,” she says, “and I’ve probably talked to them.” What she discovered, though, was that there were very few qualified companies. “The economics of running a small theatre are tough,” she points out. “Hanover said it would honor Su’s intentions. They offered a highly discounted lease — still a lot, but peanuts in this real estate market — plus $200,000 toward building out the raw space. And seventy parking spaces in the garage underneath. But the costs still scared off small operators.”

Dramatis Personae | When Su sold the building, a covenant in their sales agreement prevented Hanover from selling the space — they had to rent it out. That covenant is the greatest obstacle to the company-driven approach. Bellevue Civic Theatre, which currently performs in the four-hundred-seat Meydenbauer Theatre, was the first candidate for moving into the new house, but they couldn’t make the numbers work. “When it became a rental space, and you couldn’t purchase it, that changed the dynamics,” says BCT Artistic Director Kent Phillips. “The original plan was that John Su was going to sell that space to us, and we’d get grants to help pay for it. [Renting] adds eight to ten thousand dollars a month on top of operating costs, and economically it was no longer viable for us.”

Instead, Phillips got in touch with a friend, Scott Nolte, his counterpart at the Taproot Theatre in Seattle’s Greenwood area; as it turns out, Taproot was interested in creating a presence on the Eastside. “We’ve got a fairly large number of subscribers and single-ticket buyers who come from that area. With that head start in name recognition, we could extend the runs of three or four shows a year by moving them over to the Eastside,” says Nolte. The proposed business model called for Taproot to create a separate nonprofit to run the TEN20; they would bring their mainstage shows across the lake for twenty weeks out of the year and provide the administrative support to rent to other groups for the rest of the time.

But when the study revealed that a supposed million-dollar project would in fact cost four million, the city asked Nolte if his organization could help raise this extra money. Nolte soon cooled on the idea. “We felt that the city was taking the lead, that they wanted this to provide a service to their residents, to be a gem in their crown,” he says.

“When they said, ‘How would you like to help raise the money?’ it came as a big surprise. Raising a few million dollars for a building that wasn’t ours?”

Other players along the way have included the Meydenbauer Theatre itself, which has the advantage of already being an established Bellevue theatre operator. Fully booked all year, it could place its various clients into two different-sized houses appropriate to their needs — and open up more rental dates to those who’d been turned away. But Meydenbauer is part of the larger convention center, whose board ultimately decided it didn’t want to add another theatre to its operation.

And then there’s PACE, the king-in-waiting of all performance halls on the Eastside. When Haynes arrived in Bellevue after a national CEO search, Byrne sought him out immediately to consider adding the TEN20 to his portfolio. “I thought it would be a great asset for PACE, because [PACE as a reality] is several years away,” she says, “but they’d be able to use the TEN20 within a year. Haynes saw that there were some real benefits; he understands the idea of having large and small venues so you can serve different-sized groups.” But this too ended up in a polite refusal. “The PACE board has a huge goal,” she acknowledges, “and their opinion was they needed to stay focused on that — and this would be a distraction.”

There’s Money, and There’s Money | Haynes, for his part, maintains that the fundraising task for TEN20 is manageable. “This is a situation where someone could get his or her name on an institution. At PACE, for five million dollars, you could put your name on a founder’s box on the first balcony level, stage left. At the TEN20, you could put your name on a whole theatre. It would be on all the marketing and the tickets. People would say, ‘Hey, I’ll meet you at the Smith Theatre tonight for that show . . . ’ That’s why I think this is an eminently fundable project.”

He sees it as simply a matter of leadership: “It requires some kind of volunteer structure, led by a person who is widely respected in the community,” he says. Haynes sees a public/private partnership as the theatre’s best hope: “I think that arts facilities need to have public money in them, but they need to have even more private money in them.” But he feels it’s the city’s job to start that ball rolling. “Public funds could prime the well and make sure there’s time for private energy to coalesce around it.” But Bellevue’s City Council voted this past December against designating any funds toward the theatre. Ironically, “They wanted to see deeper private involvement and a business plan,” says Byrne. “We got caught in a ‘who’s going to come first’ situation.”

Whether it’s the city, developer Su or a private member of the community, someone will have to come forward with a plan and some cash soon. Hanover remains supportive, but their purchase and sale agreement gives them the right to seek a commercial tenant if no one will sign the lease for a theatre. It’s hardly an ideal space for most retail operators, but if Hanover does find a taker, the city will have sixty days to sign the lease themselves or let the whole project go.

Criticizing the December vote, Haynes laments, “I think the city was in a position, without too much pain, to make sure that the TEN20 Theatre didn’t go away. And if it goes away, it’s going to be gone forever, and that’s a sad thing.” Kent Phillips echoes that opinion: “That piece of real estate, in that area — you’re never going to get another shot at building anything like this in downtown Bellevue.” And Byrne adds, “There’s no scarcity of people who are in love with this project. If someone wants to get involved, they can contact me.” •