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County Purchases Signature Space

Move paves way for theater company to move into new building in Shirlington

Arlington County has purchased the home of Signature Theatre, a crucial step in its efforts to create a centralized cultural hub in the heart of Shirlington.

By purchasing the South Four Mile Run Drive site and an adjacent warehouse, Signature Theatre will now be able to move into its new space in August. The theater will be on top of the new Shirlington Library, as part of a $12.5 million, 68,000 square-foot complex.

The county purchased the South Four Mile Run property for approximately $3 million from Marian Properties LLC, said Lisa Grandle, chief of the park development division. Though the county staff began negotiating with the owners last fall, they have been interested in purchasing the site for several years.

The county plans to use its newly-acquired property to create an arts center that will include a performance space for plays, rehearsal rooms, studios and classrooms, said Norma Kaplan, chief of the county’s cultural affairs division.

Negotiations are ongoing with the Washington Shakespeare Company and Classika Synetic Theatre to move into the Signature’s old home and the vacant warehouses next door. The county is discussing buying the series of garage bays behind the former Signature building to renovate for use by the Washington Glass School.

“We’ll have a mix of different cultural activities and each group will use the different theaters and studios,” Kaplan said.

Arlington residents have long hoped for a new space for the theater company. Parking is hard to come by near Signature’s long-time home, and the closest restaurants and shops are several blocks away in Shirlington.

The new complex is in the center of Shirlington’s dining and entertainment district, next to the Shirlington 7 movie theater.

Adjacent to the new building, which will contain the 15,000-square-foot library on the first floor, will be a public plaza. Offices and performance space for Signature will be located on the second and third floors.

The county is paying for the construction of the building’s shell and infrastructure, and Signature, which has more than 4,400 subscribers, is supplying the necessary interior work. There will be an adjacent 750-space parking garage.

SIGNATURE’S STAFF AND performers often feel restricted by the cramped space in their current residence, said Sam Sweet, the theater's managing director.

The new theater will have two black box spaces, one with 299 seats and the other holding 99, three rehearsal rooms and a costume and props shop.

“Artistically, [Artistic Director] Eric Schaeffer has done a great job staging productions, but the space is fairly limiting,” Sweet said. “The new space is much larger and better technically, which will enhance our productions.”

Having a second performing area will allow Signature to stage a wider variety of shows and enable them to devote more attention to its collaboration with Arlington schools, Sweet added.

By adding Signature to the lively mix of restaurants and arts venues in downtown Shirlington, the county hopes to attract a greater number of visitors from across the metropolitan region.

Near the Shirlington site and the present Signature site on South Four Mile Run Drive, the county also operates Theatre on the Run and its cultural affairs offices, which house four rehearsal rooms and a sound studio.

The concentration of performing arts groups within such a small radius has increased the visibility of all troupes, Sweet said.

“It’s such a great resource,” he added. “It’s something I hope residents are taking advantage of and hope they feel proud that Arlington is supporting this.”

The surrounding Shirlington Village is also undergoing a major redevelopment, which includes 50,000 square feet of retail space and more than 400 condominiums and apartments. By 2007, a Harris Teeter grocery store, Caribou Coffee and Johnny Rockets restaurant will all be tenants.

The cluster of arts organizations has been a boon to local businesses and spurred others to invest in Shirlington, Kaplan said.

“We’re doing it for the artistic value to the community, but there has been a positive economic development impact,” she said.