The Grove Restores A Hidden Venue

Christopher Peak PhotoThe State HouseTheatrical shows, world-music concerts, poetry slams, book signings and industry festivals could all soon take over a forgotten, century-old warehouse on the Ninth Square’s periphery.

Founders of The Grove, a thriving co-working space at 760 Chapel St., are in the process of restoring a warehouse behind the office into a multi-use event space.

From a dusty warehouse with a rotting roof and peeling walls, they envision creating The State House, a hub for art, music and crafts that will add to the creative scene downtown.

Accessible from the parking lot on State Street, the 4,600-square-foot venue will have a performance area on the ground floor, with a small stage, a bar and restrooms, plus storage, dressing rooms and additional restrooms down in the basement. The theater can fit 125 seats.

Slate Ballard, The Grove’s CEO (where he’s grown the membership to about 135 people), and Carlos Wells, the longtime bar manager at Firehouse 12 and owner of Safety Meeting Records, are co-founding The State House together. They took the first steps in getting the venue officially underway on Tuesday evening by presenting plans to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Before the theater can open up in June, Ballard needs a tavern license that will allow sales of beer and wine as well as a waiver to rely on street parking. Planning staff recommended approval for both special exceptions.

Cafes and taverns in business districts usually need careful scrutiny, because they can morph into clubs with “much higher levels of activity and parking demand than anticipated,” Thomas Talbot, the deputy zoning director, wrote in an advisory report. But that doesn’t seem like it will be the case at the State House. “They are not proposing this as a conventional tavern with regular hours of operation; it will be open for scheduled events only,” Talbot explained.

Ballard said he’s already in talks to bring in bands from Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe, diversifying the jazz line-up that predominates in the Ninth Square. He also wants to do a speaker series, book talks, art shows, business meet-ups and TED-style conferences. He told the zoning board that they’d hold about 15 to 20 events a month.

The warehouse, once part of the Horowitz Brothers’ fabric shop until it closed up in 2004, has sat largely unused for years.

In 2013, A Broken Umbrella, New Haven’s site-specific, history-reviving theater company, got permission from the city to briefly take over the space to stage a play about bodice-ripping female bikers from the 19th-century. To get the space ready, the troupe ripped out a suspended ceiling, uncovered hardwood floors, and pulled tiling from the herringbone-patterned walls.

After that four-week run, the theater went back into disuse —  until the Elm City Innovation Collaborative won a multi-million dollar grant from CTNext, a quasi-public state agency supporting entrepreneurship.

Ballard and Wells are now trying to renovate the space, putting in a whole new roof while preserving details like the painted columns and hardwood floors. “We’re trying to keep the history,” Ballard said. They’re also adding a modular stage, a rig of lights and speakers, an audio booth and handicap-accessible bathrooms.

“This will be a really nice adjunct to this collaborative workspace that fronts on Chapel Street and will allow for a historic portion of this building that has not been used for a very long time to support entertainment and the arts,” Carie Olson, an attorney representing Ballard, told the zoning board.

Christopher Peak PhotoSeveral downtown representatives agreed that the project could make a huge difference to the Ninth Square, which has struggled with business closures and increased crime in recent months.

Aaron Greenberg, Wooster Square’s alder, submitted a letter backing the project, saying he hoped more foot traffic in the area might help fill up nearby retail vacancies.

“Neighbors and I look forward to seeing this project revitalize a dormant street and space in bringing new energy and pedestrian traffic,” he wrote. “This project is a welcome and attractive addition to the Ninth Square neighborhood.”

Win Davis, executive director of the Town Green Special Services District, also said that the city needed more activity on State Street. He urged the board to approve the special exceptions, pointing out that venues like College Street Music Hall and the Shubert Theater sold beer and wine without parking, too.

The State House’s application will be referred to the City Plan Commission for its input, before it’s sent back to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a final vote.

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posted by: HewNaven on April 11, 2018  3:55pm

Aaron Greenberg, Wooster Square’s alder, submitted a letter backing the project, saying he hoped more foot traffic in the area might help fill up nearby retail vacancies.

Hard to argue against this project, but we seriously need to re-think how easy it is to “fill up” retail space in 2018. Until people stop using Amazon and Wal-mart, we will never fill all the empty retail spaces in our cities and towns. We either need to envision alternative uses for these empty spaces, or leaders like Greenberg should to take an ideological stance against big-box and online retail.

posted by: LearnToProgram on April 11, 2018  5:37pm

Slate and his team have done a great job on this place.  I am excited about the new venue and the possibilities.

I do have to concur HewNaven, however.

These spaces are tremendously hard to fill—But I’d go a step further.  It’s not just the ground level spaces that aren’t filling.  If you walk down Chapel pretty much all of the upstairs space adjacent to the Grove between State and Church is vacant. 

The problem is, how do you get landlords seeking profitability to think differently about the space. 

I’d go in a cooperative media studio if there’s a landlord who would work with me on space, cost and time—just as an example.  But I fear waiting for Amazon (or whoever) to fill the space on the second, third and fourth floors is an exercise in futility.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 11, 2018  10:54pm

HewNaven, I agree with much of your post. But how would Greenberg et al “taking a stance” against big box and online retailers affect the retail vacancy rate? Do you think it would change people’s actual buying patterns?

posted by: HewNaven on April 12, 2018  8:38am

Kevin,

Community leaders, whether we’ve elected them, or not, need to take a stand against the economic paradigm that has been destroying communities across the country. It’s called “spine”

And, I didn’t mean to make it either/or. They can do both.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 12, 2018  12:10pm

HewNaven, why do you believe that people care what community leaders think about on-line shopping?  Greenberg and his colleagues do have a say on some land use decisions, but big box stores are a small part of the city’s retail landscape.

posted by: HewNaven on April 12, 2018  12:37pm

Kevin,

How convenient you singled out big box stores from my other point. Did you miss the part about online shopping??

You always are quick to make your point, but not a great listener, fwiw.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 12, 2018  1:13pm

HewNaven, please read the second sentence of my 10:54 post and the first sentence of my 12:10 post, both dealing with online retail. Online retail is clearly harming brick and mortar stores. But Greenberg and other local officials have no jurisdiction over whether people shop online or in person. I very much doubt that they have any influence on this point.

posted by: HewNaven on April 12, 2018  1:33pm

Kevin,

New Haven definitely needs caring people like you who also happen to love teaching us about the law! But, I’m just saying we also need people to take an ideological position sometimes. Although you’re correct they may not be able to directly oppose these economic trends, they may still be able to lead us in the right direction and eventually together we can alter the legal paradigm.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 12, 2018  2:10pm

HewNaven, thanks. Public officials sometimes need to take principled stances even when there is little likelihood they will effect change. But, having worked with hundreds of officials, I realize they (like the rest of us) have limited bandwidth. Moreover, I suspect most voters would oppose officials trying to limit online shopping, as distinct from promoting local businesses.

Going back to your initial post, I agree that we need to envision alternative uses for empty spaces. You might want to get on the agenda of the Downtown/Wooster Square Community Management Team to start a conversation on this.

One final thought. Ballard noted he’s already in talks to bring in bands from Puerto Rico and Zimbabwe. I think it would be useful for him to collaborate with the Arts and Ideas folks - performances in the State House could serve as try-outs for groups being considered for A&I.

posted by: HewNaven on April 12, 2018  3:28pm

Kevin,

One thing I truly believe is that the more we talk about this, the greater our chances for collective solutions. So, thank you for engaging! No one individual will create a “solution”, but these kinds of discussions are extremely valuable to find our common ground. And, I hope we can include more people in this dialogue, whether at a CMT or other venue.

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 12, 2018  8:38pm

Sorry to see this thread devolve into something that has nothing to do with the positive development at hand.
Maybe NHI should once again review their ‘posting policies’.  This kind of derailment is just poor form.

Good Luck with this Carlos and Slate..
I will certainly see you there on Opening Day!

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 12, 2018  10:39pm

Bill, this is a positive development. But the structural issues discussed above affect its prospects. If on-line and big box retailing continue to eviscerate downtowns, innovative developments like the State House are unlikely to thrive.

posted by: robn on April 13, 2018  7:23am

What does Amazon or big box retailers or even the presence or lack of presence of small retailers in the 9th Square have to do with a performance space? If people want to see small theater, they’ll come irrespective of the neighbors. There’s a gazillion restaurants within a few blocks of here and that’s usually all that theater goers care about.

posted by: Bill Saunders on April 13, 2018  8:28pm

Exactly Rob,

Kevin McCarthy et al need to learn to comment on the article at hand rather than pontificating about ancillary issues…  you guys aren’t the know-it-alls you claim to be, otherwise you would have sat silent, or supported this positive downtown enterprise….

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 14, 2018  7:47pm

Bill, I think The State House is a great idea. In this thread, I called it a “positive” and “innovative” development.  Most people would have therefore correctly inferred that I support it. Apparently, you did not.

Robn, it is my understanding that you are an architect. If so, you have a much greater understanding than I do of the importance of context. As the photo near the top of the article indicates, the venue currently abuts a parking lot and a blank brick wall. You are right that it is not particularly important who the venue’s future neighbors are. But the growth of online and big box retailing increase the odds that the adjoining property will continue to be empty and off-putting.. This has nothing to do with the BZA application, which I think should be approved. But it is relevant to The State House’s long term viability, particularly given the breadth of events the developers want to host.

posted by: robn on April 14, 2018  8:35pm

KM

I’m not an architect. And we live in a day and age when people are thrilled to enter bars through back alleys and even phone booths. The abandoned nature of this location only adds to the allure of it.
Good luck to the operators.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on April 14, 2018  9:15pm

Robn, thanks for the clarification. While I trust The State House will be much more than a bar, I look forward to having a drink there!