As the March 15 eviction of Teatro ZinZanni draws near, neither side in the housing dispute is backing down in the fight that has pitted one Seattle arts institution against another. Seattle Opera, which is selling the building Teatro ZinZanni performs in, says the sale must go on; Teatro ZinZanni insists the opera is refusing to take simple steps to give them more time.
In case you missed the dust-up earlier this year: since 2006, the Mercer Street property has housed Teatro ZinZanni—a dinner theater hosting performances that mix cabaret, cirque and comedy. But earlier this year Seattle Opera, which owns the land and had long planned to use its sale to fund a new opera house complex, agreed to sell it to a company called Washington Holding, with the sale finalizing at the end of this month. The opera company says that Teatro ZinZanni has known since the sale that it had to be moved by March 15; however, the company insists both Seattle Opera and the land buyers said the theater could remain onsite until construction work begins. Since January, Teatro ZinZanni has been leading a social media campaign under the hashtag #SeattleNeedsTZ to raise support for the company to stay in the building until it is actually demolished.
In a letter to Seattle Opera patrons this week, the opera’s general director Aidan Lang defended the nonprofit against the recent criticism it has received regarding its sale of the land located on 222 Mercer Street to Seattle-based real state company Washington Holdings. Lang says that Teatro ZinZanni is misrepresenting the situation, and making what should be a time of celebration for the Seattle arts community one of controversy instead.
“While the announcement of our property sale is an exciting milestone, we find ourselves at the center of a controversy that is not our making,” Lang wrote in the statement. “We are saddened by the depiction that Seattle Opera is not giving Teatro Zinzanni enough time to relocate to a new, yet undisclosed, home. That is simply not accurate.”
In April 2015, Seattle Opera was looking for potential buyers of the Mercer Street property to use the money for the Seattle Opera at the Center project—a project to transform the unused Mercer Arena building adjacent to Marion Oliver McCaw Hall into a world-class civic home for opera.
Teatro ZinZanni, as a tenant, made a bid to buy the land at a fair market value but was unable to show that it could come up with the funds. After that, Seattle Opera continued looking for a land buyer who could afford the property’s market value—eventually, that ended up being Washington Holdings.
The theater company received a one-year lease extension in November 2015, which allowed it to stay in the property just until the last day of this January. But the company sold tickets for dates beyond the lease termination date, so it signed a new lease extension with Seattle Opera. The new contract allowed the former to finish its performing season.
According to Seattle Opera, it has always been explicitly stated in the lease that its long-term intent is to develop the property for its own use or sell it, and that both parties agreed that the space was going to be vacated by March 15. However, Teatro ZinZanni says that date was contingent on construction work by Washington Holdings starting—which hasn’t, in fact, begun. Lang denies that the March 15 date was so flexible.
Now, adding to the drama, Teatro ZinZanni is claiming that Washington Holdings had made an offer to help keep the theater company in the building for a few months longer, but that the opera refused the offer.
Norman Langill, Teatro ZinZanni’s founder and artistic director, claimed in a letter sent to the company’s community on Thursday that Washington Holdings offered to pay half the sale price to Seattle Opera now, in order to extend the closing of the sale until June; at that point they’d get the other half (the theater’s letter cites specific dollar figures, but Seattle Weekly could not confirm them). This extension, Langill wrote, would allow his theater company to generate revenue and make the transition to a new location smooth.
“We are obviously disappointed in Seattle Opera’s decision, as it jeopardizes the jobs of 106 Teatro ZinZanni staff members—performers to cooks, designers to ticket-sellers,” Langill wrote. “These people are our family. Furthermore, it creates a more perilous situation for our company as we look to secure plans for the future.”
Lang, in his letter Tuesday, seemed to anticipate this argument, and was having none of it. He wrote that the city’s opera feels empathy for the theater company and its staff, but says it must sell the land by March 31, because the opera’s two rehearsal spaces, costume department, props shop and administrative offices are all located in a rented space in South Lake Union, with the lease termination date being 2018. By selling this property at the end of this month, Seattle Opera will be able to continue the construction of the new building that will host these spaces.
“If we don’t move into our new facility on time, it jeopardizes the jobs of our own 600 artists, employees, and contractors,” Lang wrote in the statement. “Additionally, it could create financial strains for Seattle Symphony and McCaw Hall who rely on our performances as part of their business models.”
Kym Michela, a spokeperson for the opera project, wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly that Teatro Zinzanni knew that it had to look for a new space since 2014, and that any more delays won’t work.
“In the past 22 months, the construction project timeline for the new building (and financing requirement to sell the [block where the theater is located] has been shared not only with Teatro ZinZanni but publicly in press releases, Seattle Opera patron communications, and at public meetings,” Michela wrote. “Seattle Opera has already extended the lease once this year. Any additional delays are not an option. Time truly has run out.”
Speaking of future, Langill wrote that Teatro ZanZinni—whose final show is scheduled for this Saturday—has identified 12 potential locations for relocation after checking several hundreds of options in Seattle and the surrounding area. However, none has proved feasible so far.
“Teatro ZinZanni continues to work on promising options to secure both temporary and future locations,” the theater artistic director wrote. “At present, we are pursuing long-term lease negotiations for an exciting new site; as you know, however, Seattle is a hyper-competitive real estate market, and this location has an unsolicited purchase offer on it from another buyer.”