What's next for the Odd Fellows Hall?

Incoming owner discusses plans and realities

That the Odd Fellows Hall is changing hands is by now well known. Home to the Century Ballroom, Freehold Studio, Velocity Dance, numerous other arts organizations as well as several businesses, the upcoming sale of the nearly 100-year-old building has received attention in this paper as well as both dailies and alternative weeklies.

Rumors had been circulating about a potential sale, especially since early October, but the previous owners had not put the building on the market - new owner Ted Schroth and his group made inquiries and discovered the current owners were interested in selling.

Thus the $64,000 question: What Happens Next?

While specifics are in limited supply, Schroth has started to shed some light as to what the future holds for the iconic Capitol Hill structure. In a conversation with the Capitol Hill Times last week, Schroth touched upon what he plans to do with the building.

Schroth pointed to the Trace project, his new development that nears completion along 12th Avenue several blocks southeast of the Odd Fellows Hall, as being representative of his philosophy toward development. Trace is notable for the fact that the old warehouse building on the corner of 12th Avenue and East Madison Street was preserved rather than torn down. One key difference between Trace and Odd Fellows, among many, is that Schroth said he has no plans to convert Odd Fellows into a residential property.

"This project is in some ways more interesting, and it's certainly more difficult [than Trace]. Part of its appeal is the building's beauty. But this is not an easy project to figure out. There are still many issues that need to be resolved," he said.

Assuming the deal is completed - the sale is expected to close in January - Schroth said he has several options. One option would be to tear the building down and put something new on what would be a blank slate. Such a possibility was never considered, Schroth said. He suspected current owners Paul Verba and David Angel would not have sold it to his group had that been the case.

In another possible scenario, the building's interior could be gutted and an entirely new floor plan put in its place. Another option, one Schroth is aware that many people would favor, would be to do very little apart from physical improvements. Schroth concedes that the keeping the status quo is simply rhetoric; such an option isn't really on the table.

"The hardest option to make work is for the Odd Fellows building to remain exactly as it is now," he said. "It just isn't possible economically. We paid a market-rate price for the building and as a result we need to make market-rate decisions."

Schroth said he doesn't have a firm idea of what uses the building will maintain in the future. Such plans are being formed. That said, major changes will take place on the retail level, which he believes does not take the street into account very well. There will also be major changes on the Odd Fellows building's fourth floor, currently home to small arts organizations and businesses. He expects a major re-imagining of what he said is an impractical and unworkable floor plan on the building's top level.

"We'll reconfigure the office space and try to identify artistic uses," he said. But Schroth agreed that the economic reality is that it's highly unlikely that many or possibly any of the floor's current tenants will be able to remain for the long term.

"It's tough for artists to pay market rate," he said. "I realize that there may be some changes in the building that might not make everyone happy. But our future rental rates need to reflect market realities."

Schroth said that while he hopes the building retains its artistic character, such realities mean that future fourth-floor tenants could include architects, design firms, advertising agencies and public relations firms. Schroth said that nothing is set in stone, but he is aiming for a retail vision similar to the one he's using at the Trace project.

"I'm treating this building like a piece of the Capitol Hill puzzle. We're working to bring new uses into the neighborhood while keeping old ones. The goal is trying to achieve a shared vision for the area," he said.

Schroth said that the larger performance spaces found on the second and third floors are not being re-imagined at this point. But he added that it's too early to say specifically what will happen, for instance, to the Century Ballroom.

"There will be changes to the top and bottom floors, and we'll be working on those as soon as possible. The middle floors remain a question mark," he said.

As far as how many current tenants will ultimately be able to call Odd Fellows home, Schroth doesn't know.

"I can't really speak to that specifically. I don't know how many tenants are going to be able to stay. But I have to find a way to make the building work as an investment. It doesn't work to have arts organizations or any tenant pay the kind of low rent they're paying now," he said.

As for the reaction such market-rate realities are likely to produce, Schroth said that other developers might well have aimed at tearing the building down and putting up apartments as their starting point. Again he pointed to the Trace Lofts project nearby. Saving the old warehouse, he said, was harder and far more expensive than simply tearing it down. Firm plans have yet to be made. There are many physical improvements that need to be resolved, permits to be applied for, logistics to figure out.

"Sooner or later, change was going to happen to the Odd Fellows building. It was going to be sold at some point. I know we'll do a better job here than most," he said. "We're not looking at this project in a cultural vacuum. It's not just a spreadsheet for us."

Responding to some of the criticisms he's heard, Schroth said he understood that the Odd Fellows building is a long-standing community artistic hub, home to well-established arts groups that have made their mark upon and helped define Capitol Hill. Such an identity was one of the things that made the Odd Fellows Hall so appealing.

"I've been to performances here. I've gone to the Century Ballroom. This place is a wonderful melting pot. It's very cool," he said.

But he hesitated when asked whether even some of the larger tenants, such as Velocity Dance, Freehold and the Century Ballroom, would be able to remain in a newly configured and market-rate Odd Fellows Hall.

"I certainly hope so," he said after a short pause.

Doug Schwartz is the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.comor 461-1308.

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