Nov 4 2020

OPINION: City Owned 801 Magnolia Building Should Be Run By the City

– Regarding the City building at 801 Magnolia Avenue and the upcoming proposed lease to a private group by the City –

Are most residents even aware that the City Council is considering giving away control of the 801 Magnolia Avenue building with little or no notice to its citizens? Because I, for one, am very familiar with all aspects of this building, I do feel a duty to share my observations and ideas regarding its future use.

There is no question that The Piedmont Center for the  Arts has done a fine job of bringing quality live performances and art exhibits right into the heart of our town in the 801 Magnolia Avenue building. Since 2019, the Art Center no longer runs their own programs, but using the building as a “rental venue for the Arts,” they have booked many evenings of great entertainment and interesting art exhibits. These have been popular events which should continue, but control of the 801 Magnolia building needs to return to the City once the Piedmont Center for the Arts’ lease expires in June, 2021.

First of all, the Recreation Department could now make upwards of $260,000 a year of revenue for the City from bookings at 801 Magnolia based on what the Community Center brings in, plus everyone could use it.

Secondly, it was always intended that the Recreation Department could reclaim this City space after the first 6 years; that is how the lease was written. The Art Center was just the interim solution–renovating a public building with private funds at a time when the City could not do so. We raised the money, got all the contractors, managed the project – just put our heart and soul into it and kept our side of the bargain.

A simple “quid pro quo” with $1/year rent as part of the bargain! The reduced rent was NEVER a subsidy for art (See video of Council Meeting, March 7, 2011).  We stated our mission: “to promote artistic endeavors for youth within the Piedmont community,” because we felt such was lacking in our town.

Since the 801 Magnolia parcel was re-zoned in 2017 to allow for-profit commercial entities on this city-owned land, there have been many proposals about what could happen there once the current lease expires, including the best one for a commercial health club providing exercise classes, yoga, massage and physical therapy as well as nutrition services. As a center city building within walking distance of most Piedmont residents, these would be welcomed services. But I would still argue for control by the Recreation Department as the best way to ensure the greatest usage of this public building by the most residents for the highest revenue.

I would certainly not advise extending the current lease because in a dynamic community, situations change over time and the situation of the Piedmont Center for the Arts has certainly changed. Pre-Covid 19, in Calendar Year 2019, the part of the building they control (“the West Wing”) was unused 70% of the time while the other Recreation buildings were in constant use by residents for all sorts of activities. This fact, alone, should argue against continuing the lease of a prime public building to any private group with total power to decide who gets to use it and when.

It would be a different thing if the City just doesn’t need use of this building anymore; in that case, who would care? Further, as the purpose of The Piedmont Center for the Arts has now become a venue operating rentals for the arts, and it no longer “promotes artistic endeavors for youth within the Piedmont Community,” one should ask if it matters to the City, in considering a lease to them, whether this group is a nonprofit anymore.

Since the building is now zoned for commercial use, would the City allow The Piedmont Center for the Arts to operate as a for-profit entity at $1/year rent versus $260,000 revenue from Recreation Department uses or $15,000/month from a health club?

And, of course, the passage of Measure UU has changed the game in the city center, arguing against any long-term tie up of City property. These are big issues and options that the community needs a chance to understand.

With regard to a lease that doesn’t even end for another six months, it is impossible to understand the City’s rush to end all discussion, and, of course, any other options, by just giving away control to this private group.

The City should tell us, “what’s the quid pro quo of this deal” for the community? I just don’t see it! They should allow the current City lease with The Piedmont Center for the Arts to continue until its expiration in June, 2021 after which the 801 Magnolia West Wing would return to the City and Recreation Department jurisdiction.

Nancy N. Lehrkind, Founder & Former President The Piedmont Center for the Arts, Inc.

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

4 Responses to “OPINION: City Owned 801 Magnolia Building Should Be Run By the City”

  1. As a council member at the time the lease was drafted and approved, I concur with Nancy’s assessment – the city’s sole objective was to have the 801 building refurbished and made accessible to the community by a third party. At the time, the City had insufficient funds and staff to repair and manage the facility. That is no longer the case – the City has over $5M in the Facilities Maintenance Fund and a dedicated staff person for managing rental of city facilities. Given that and the potential for the City to raise substantial revenue from the facility, City Council needs to undertake a reassessment of the use of 801. There is no reason why the City cannot manage the facility while PCA continues to book artistic content at 801.

  2. With some reluctance I embrace Art Center founder and past Board President Nancy Lehrkind’s plan for 801 Magnolia. With the passage of UU and a revitalization of the City Center, more and varied uses for underused 801 Magnolia are needed.

    In 2011 I asked for an open discussion before the taxpayer paid for building was turned over to the Piedmont Art Center Board, then listed as a non-profit. Now for the City to go ahead with a single Council meeting to determine the de facto private control of this building for the next 10 years to a non-profit that may not be operating as a non-profit will only continue the overly generous taxpayer subsidy.

    An examination of internal Art Center Board dealings has not been brought forward. In 2016 a City zone’s use was changed to allow commercial specifically without the Charter required city wide vote. This was evidently orchestrated by Art Center Board members.

    Then in Dec 2017, again orchestrated by the Center’s Board and President Lehrkind, an opaque and other than arm’s length deal was consummated between the City and the Art Center Board resulting in a questionable sub-lease.

    No public or Council discussion was allowed other than the right of the Center to create a sub-lease through a CUP process that had already been orchestrated the previous year with the zone use change. The behind the scenes deal was so blatant that the sub-lessee had already renovated and moved into the space weeks before the sub-lease was approved.

    In 2011 I advocated for significant free time to be made available to Piedmont youth art endeavors; this was never done. Now Councilman Tim Rood stated in 2011 “A minimum of 750 hours must be provided to PUSD at no cost.” Regrettably there was no time given to PUSD which is contrary to the 2011 Incorporation statement: “The specific purpose of this corporation is to promote artistic endeavors for youth within the Piedmont community.”

    A thorough examination of past actions and more importantly an open community discussion is now needed for this valuable City asset and why the original intent was never realized.

  3. Kudos to Nancy and Tom Lehrkind for their leadership, creativity and vision in rescuing this building, which had languished unused and unimproved for years, right in the center of town. The council should listen to her now, as they did when she and Tom came up with the idea, energy and money to restore it 6 years ago. She knows more than anyone else that a $1/yr lease was never intended to be a forever gift from the City to a non-profit organization. Time to rethink.

  4. I wholeheartedly support giving full power to the Recreation Department to decide who gets to use the space and when at 801 Magnolia.

    Bill Blackwell

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