A recent story by the Washington, DC blog Greater Greater Washington highlighted the need for the DC zoning code to be flexible regarding community theatre companies and the same can be said for the Atlanta zoning code. The problem is that most zoning codes view all theatres equally – in the eyes of the code a huge cinema and a local non-profit theatre group staging small productions are both treated as commercial uses. Limiting a small non-profit theatre group to purely commercial spaces makes it compete for space with for-profit restaurants, bars, and other retail establishments and this is almost always a losing effort. It makes sense for this type of theatre to be classified as commercial – it is providing a service to the public and will generate traffic in the same manner as many small retail establishments. However, the zoning code doesn’t treat this type of theatre in the same way it treats small retail establishments or other non-profit community-based uses. This lack of conformity hurts the ability of local theatre groups to establish and maintain themselves by creating an unnecessary financial burden.
The Atlanta zoning code designates certain uses for districts and then provides for various special uses which can be obtained by following a particular procedure designed to mitigate any harmful effects. No residential zone allows for theatres in any capacity, be it a permitted principal use, a permitted accessory use, or through a special permit. However, residential zones allow special use permits for churches, community groups, child care centers, schools, sports arenas, and private clubs among a number of other things. These are all uses that will likely create a similar or greater flow and volume of traffic as a small retail establishment, yet we allow them because they are generally non-profit operations or ones that provide some type of community-based cultural or entertainment value. A small non-profit community theatre group should fit into this category. Allowing a small theatre to use a church or other facility in a residential area or to follow the special permit procedure and rent or buy a residential piece of property would greatly benefit them financially as they would no longer need to compete for valuable commercial space.
Though allowing small theatre groups to operate in residential areas is the best scenario, as it provides shelter from the competition of many for-profit uses, Atlanta could also allow theatres to operate in residential-limited commercial districts. This type of district allows for many of the same uses as a general residential district, but also throws in barber shops, offices, studios, antique shops, and clinics. Why not also include small theatres? Though theatres would now have to compete with some commercial uses, the spaces will likely be cheaper than many commercial areas with high traffic counts. The permitted uses in these districts are primarily daytime services, so a theatre group could provide some nightlife and activity after-hours. This, of course, could be a problem for local residents who would prefer a quiet neighborhood at night, but the city should at least attempt to address noise problems instead of banning the use outright. Dealing with the problems associated with non- residential uses is, after all, the purpose of the special permit procedure. A small theatrical performance is unlikely to produce the same amount of noise and distraction as a club or music venue and should fit nicely as a permitted or special use.
As Atlanta only allows use variances in limited circumstances (there is almost no way to use your property in a manner inconsistent with the permitted, accessory, or special uses of a district without rezoning) small community theatres are strictly bound to commercial zones, which can be much more expensive than residential zones. The city simply needs to recognize that this type of theatre is not the same type of theatre as a huge cinema or music venue and shouldn’t be treated the same. The code needs to be a bit more flexible to allow small community theatres to operate in residential or residential-limited commercial areas when it makes sense and all negative effects can be mitigated. This sounds like a great way to use land; it provides an interesting, convenient form of entertainment, allows actors to do what they love doing, and could be a great way for a neighborhood to come together.