Youth Musical Theater plans new West Berkeley home

YMTC
YMTC celebrates the Council’s approval for their new home outside Old City Hall on Tuesday March 25. Photo: YMTC

UPDATE, March 27: The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the move by the Youth Musical Theater Company to two buildings at West Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. Jennifer Boesing, the company’s artistic director, said she was “brimming with excitement.” Writing to the company’s community via email she said: “With the generous sponsorship of Berkeley-based Sogno Design Group and the Parks and Recreation Department, we will be renovating our new home over the spring and summer, with our 2014-2015 season programming and rehearsals beginning there in the fall. The result will be the creation of an exciting and vital artistic hub that serves YTMC and the larger Berkeley community.”

ORIGINAL STORY: A 10-year-old musical theater company serving local youth is one step closer to creating its first permanent home in West Berkeley’s Aquatic Park.

The Youth Musical Theater Company won preliminary approval Thursday night from Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board to create a new base for its operations on Bolivar Drive at the southern end of Aquatic Park.

City staff members have been working with the theater group to come up with a deal that would work for both parties. But, for the agreement to move forward, the Berkeley City Council will also have to approve the use permit and sign off on the lease.


The company hopes to move ahead later this year with its plans to turn two buildings on Bolivar into space for rehearsals, classes and workshops, as well as areas for set design and construction.

The buildings under consideration have previously been used as a yacht clubhouse and bird rescue building. Both are now vacant. One has been empty for 12 years and is in “significant disrepair,” staff said.

Christina Erickson, senior management analyst for the city’s Parks, Recreation & Waterfront department, said the group’s mission, cooperative attitude and “sound financials” were some of the reasons the city hopes to partner with the organization.

“They won’t just be there and fix the buildings,” she told the zoning board. “They’ll attract the public, and attract a vibrancy down there that has been lacking for many years.”

A Youth Musical Theater dance rehearsal for Urinetown. Photo: Youth Musical Theater Company
A Youth Musical Theater dance rehearsal for Urinetown. Photo: Youth Musical Theater Company

Youth Musical Theater Company is a Berkeley-based non-profit that produces musical theater and provides theater training to students from seventh grade to the university level. From the staff report: “Their year-round programming includes three fully-mounted musicals, as well as multiple after-school, weekend, and summer training workshops, as well as a summer camp. YMTC conducts outreach to local middle schools, high schools and colleges to draw singers and actors for their productions, workshops and classes.”


The group was established in 2004 and trains more than 200 young performers annually. It holds performances at theaters around the East Bay.

2925 – 2945 Bolivar Drive would be the first permanent location for the organization, which is currently based in North Oakland, and has had many other temporary locations, such as Willard Middle School, Eppworth Church and the Cal dance studios.

During the school year, the buildings would be used primarily after school and on weekends. Over the summer, there would be activity up to seven days a week. Specific hours would be subject to
the lease agreement and conditions of approval, according to the staff report. The project would not include on-site performances.

As part of its agreement with the city, the theater group will upgrade and improve the buildings, including ADA-related bathroom modifications, and some interior wall removal.

Two vacant buildings could become the new home of Youth Musical Theater Company. Image: City of Berkeley
Two vacant buildings could become the new home of Youth Musical Theater Company. Image: City of Berkeley

The city has struggled to find a tenant for the buildings due to their condition and location. In addition, approvable uses are somewhat limited because they must be permitted on public tidal lands. The city also wanted to find a tenant that would attract more people to Aquatic Park, to increase both safety and activity.


Staff said Thursday night that Youth Musical Theater appears to be a good fit in all those areas. Initially, said planner Erickson, the group was not interested in the property because of all its challenges, but the city agreed to work with the organization to make improvements, and to come up with a lease that would work for both parties.

Some zoning commissioners and members of the public who sent letters to the board said they did not think a theater company would be a good use for the space, that they were concerned about impacts on wildlife, that existing infrastructure is too limited, and that there isn’t a clear enough overlap with aquatic activities, or enough public benefits, to approve the permit request. They also noted concerns about traffic, security and lighting in the area.

Ultimately the zoning board voted 5-3, with one abstention, to allow the permit. Because the property falls within an “unclassified” zoning district, the council will now make the final decision about the permit and lease.

Youth Musical Theater Company board member Alison Bernstein, who also serves on Berkeley’s Police Review Commission, said she hopes the new endeavor will help create a “youth arts corridor” in West Berkeley, with Luna Dance Institute on the north end of Aquatic Park, and YMTC to the south.

Supporters also spoke about the company’s commitment to social justice, creativity, youth empowerment and the arts, and said basing the company on Bolivar Drive will create hundreds of new advocates for West Berkeley and Aquatic Park.

“You would be losing huge champions if you let those kids go somewhere else,” said Jill Vialet, who has two children in the program. Vialet and others also spoke about the professional level of the group’s productions and training programs.

Theater company board member Denise Pinkston told zoning commissioners that the organization is excited to finally have a home in Berkeley.

“This will inject life, activity and supervision in that neglected edge of Aquatic Park so that the general public will feel comfortable,” she said.

In response to commissioners who voiced security-related concerns about illicit activity in Aquatic Park, she added: “What’s in the bushes will be the birds now.”

Related:
Berkeley Oaks Theatre efforts stall in negotiations (01.17.14)
The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space (09.16.13)
Wonderful Town: A high-energy, entertaining romp (03.06.13)

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