Bob Rechnitz thought he had a can’t-miss idea.
Buy a single-family house on the West Side of Red Bank and rent it for a dollar a year to the nearby Two River Theater Company, which he founded, for use as temporary lodging for up to five visiting actors. Provide assurances about the character of the people who would stay at the house, and under what circumstances. Underscore its importance to the future of the $15 million theater in its drive to attract professional talent to its intimate stage, and to the cultural and economic vitality of Red Bank.
Through his attorney, Rechnitz repeatedly asserted that the boarding-house-like use would be in effect only as long as the house, at 81 Shrewsbury Avenue, was employed by the theater exactly as described.
Still, over the course of three hearings, Rechnitz’ proposal met resistance from the borough zoning board, from which he needed a variance.
While praising the theater itself, members of the board raised concerns about who would police the behavior of the actors; whether the property might be used a boarding house by a future owner; and whether it might someday end up owned by the non-profit theater itself, thus taking it off the tax rolls.
Last night, the plan won unanimous, if lukewarm, approval after a last minute stipulation by Rechnitz that he variance would only be in effect for two years. But the process appeared to have left the college-professor-turned-stage-director with a sour taste.
“I thought it was a slam-dunk,” he told redbankgreen afterward, clearly frustrated by the ordeal.
The variance was needed because planning and zoning director Donna Smith Barr had previously determined that the facility “may be considered a rooming house,” according to board attorney Kevin Kennedy.
But Gordon Litwin, Rechnitz’ attorney, and a host of witnesses sought to distance the proposal from the image of unrelated transients paying for cheap, temporary lodgings.
Among them was Maureen Silliman, an actress who has performed in five shows at the TRTC and is now in rehearsals as Amanda in Rechnitz’ staging of ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ (which starts previews March 25). She sought to quell unspoken fears that house might be something akin to a frat house.
“Believe me, to get a job at the Two River Theater everyone who gets one, they’ve competed with at least 100 people,” Silliman told the board. Acting, she said “is one of the most disciplined professions. We take our work home with us, and we care desperately about it.”
She said she’s stayed at similar houses across the country many theater companies provide them in compliance with Actors Equity contracts requiring that housing be available to talent and said the actors invariably appoint a “house deputy” to ensure that the place is well-kept.
TRTC officials also testified they would fire any actor who broke house rules prohibiting overnight guests, parking and other restrictions.
But board members went at the plan from numerous angles. Kevin Moss sought assurance that the actors using the house would be as well-behaved in 2020 as they might be in 2008. Chairman Tom Williams thought the plan was in conflict with a general desire that the RiverCenter business district, recently extended to the West Side, be further enlarged to include all of Shrewsbury Avenue. Alternate member Rosemarie Minear contended that Rechnitz hadn’t shown how Red Bank would benefit.
Only Chris Ferrigine appeared to endorse the idea. Having a rotation of actors in the house would be good for the restaurants and stores in the vicinity, he said.
The complaints led Litwin to repeat earlier assertions about the role the theater plays in bringing culture and to Red Bank. He also cited its educational outreach efforts to children.
Jay Herman, who owns several downtown properties and serves on the RiverCenter board, told Williams that the agency had in fact endorsed the Rechnitz plan as “a real shot in the arm” to nearby businesses, and that it did not conflict with future expansion plans.
“It is RiverCenter’s considered opinion that this will be part of the economic engine for the West Side,” he said.
Only after Litwin suggested that the variance be in effect for just two years, and Rechnitz testified that he would not give or sell the house to the TRTC, did the board yield. Those provisions, Williams said, “make me feel more comfortable with the application.”
Afterward, asked how soon the house might be put to its new use, Rechnitz told redbankgreen that he hopes to be able to “put the cast of ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in there. We need it.”