Crosby School auditorium could reopen, but not yetNew owner optimistic about permitting, says mold problem less than thought
Belfast — The long-shuttered Crosby School auditorium is on track to come out of a decade of dormancy later this year. That's almost soon enough for theater groups that have been clamoring to get into the space for years.
The 400-seat auditorium has been mothballed for a decade, bound part-and-parcel to the quirks of the nearly 100-year-old school it inhabits. After numerous near sales and false starts in the past five years, the building changed hands in December 2016 and the new owner, Kiril Lozanov of Belfast, has started a slate of renovations that will make creative use of the former school.
Lozanov is scheduled to take the first part of a two-phase renovation plan to the Planning Board March 29.
The first phase would include converting the third floor to cooperative housing with 16 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms and shared dining, cooking, living and laundry. Part of the second floor would become a two-room hostel with 16 to 20 beds available for stays of up to three nights. A corner space on the same floor would be converted to an office for Lozanov's business, Capital City Renewables, which specializes in wind testing for commercial wind energy developments.
Finally, the auditorium would be approved for use by roughly 125 people. The figure is based on the 26 parking spaces on the property. Lozanov said the square-block lot could hold up to 52 spaces, which could eventually allow for greater occupancy in the auditorium. That will be phase two, he said.
His initial attempt to reopen the theater created a feeding frenzy among theater groups that have long competed for a limited number of less-than-ideal performance spaces.
Lozanov was approached numerous times after the sale by Cold Comfort Theater. Initially he objected, but the group seemed unconcerned by the lack of heat, he said; he relented and offered the space as it was.
Cold Comfort announced the auditorium would open at the end of March with a production of — in hindsight prophetically named — "Almost, Maine."
Lozanov soon learned that he needed to upgrade basic safety, plumbing and electrical systems to meet city occupancy rules. Additionally the theater would require special approval. The former Crosby School was among a dozen large and unique properties designated for contract rezoning, which allows for a wide variety of uses but requires approval from the City Council.
Meanwhile, Lozanov found that by giving Cold Comfort Theater the green light he had inadvertently stepped into the middle of an ongoing drama among various local theater groups.
"Instead of everyone being excited and happy, everyone was nervous and stressed out," he said. "I thought, wow, this is not the reaction I expected."
Lozanov expressed hope that things would quiet down when the auditorium returns to regular use. To minimize any controversy, he hopes to establish a fair system whereby groups can request the space.
The more pressing concern with regard to the theater, he said, is who will pay the bills?
Many people have expressed interest, often urgently, he said, but most want to use the space for free or a token fee. Annual utility bills for the building will be in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, he estimates.
"Unfortunately, the expenses related to the building are more focused on the theater space than the rest," he said.
For now, he is pressing ahead with renovations. Based on the notification requirements of the city's contract rezoning process, he expects the theater won't be available for use until at least the end of May, and probably later.
Aynne Ames, artistic director of Cold Comfort Theater, said the issues with the space are now between Lozanov and the city, but she expressed hope for future performances at the school.
"There's such a strong nostalgic feeling about that building," she said. "I would hope the city would get behind it."
Lozanov is likewise hoping for a groundswell of support but said supporters will need to show up. His own application to install several solar panels on the side of the building was rejected recently by the city's design review committee at a meeting he didn't attend. He isn't planning on making that mistake again.
"The people who don't want stuff, they always speak," he said. "And things don't happen because of that."
Lozanov paid just over $200,000 for the building and estimated it will cost in the neighborhood of $250,000 to get it in basic working order.
While the building was unused, heating and plumbing pipes throughout burst from residual water. Boilers were of poor quality, and two of the three had failed, he said. Though he originally hoped to replace the oil heating system, he decided instead to restore it in the interest of getting the building up and running. Later, he said, he would like to install heat pumps, at which time the boilers would be kept for backup.
On March 13, he was dressed in a silver insulated jumpsuit in preparation for working on the roof, patching. Plumbers worked in a downstairs hallway near the old chapel. A painter finished off an upstairs bedroom.
Lozanov is easygoing but he seemed mildly put off by the bureaucracy of the city permitting process, to which he was reluctantly resigned.
"If it's up to me, we'll have heat and water likely next week, so we can have events," he said. "This is fine, but it's not going to go this way."
But is there mold?
The Crosby School served Belfast area students from its construction in 1923 until the school was closed in 1991 due to poor air quality. The problems were believed to stem from a combination of a leak-prone flat roof and ill-conceived renovations in 1975 that closed the building's ventilation system and added airtight windows in an attempt to conserve heat.
The building was resurrected for an unlikely second life in the mid-1990s by the nonprofit National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, which bought the building in 1995 and offered summer workshops and performance opportunities for disabled actors until about 2007. The organization, now defunct, put more than $1 million into renovations, upgrading the auditorium and converting classrooms on the upper floors to dormitory suites and rehearsal studios.
Lozanov believes the organization eliminated the mold problem that had plagued the school, or at least slowed it down.
In 2010, the building was eyed as a candidate for a performing arts center. A study then commissioned by the city found mold and concluded that among $1.5 million in needed repairs, $67,000 would have to be spent on mold remediation.
Five years later, a Waterville developer backed out after putting the building under contract based on findings from an environmental report.
For all the anticipation surrounding a renaissance of the Crosby School, no one to date has found a way around the seemingly persistent mold. But Lozanov said the problem is not as big as everyone thinks.
An 800-page report completed last December, just prior to his purchase of the building, found majority of the building's troubles were coming from leaks in the roof, which Lozanov has already begun repairing as a stopgap until he can replace it.
Mold in the basement documented after NTWH departed had been cleaned up, and mold that Lozanov found on impervious surfaces inside the building tested out as the less-problematic household variety, he said. More importantly, he added, it didn't appear to be active, and it wasn't spreading.
"Apparently it's not a big issue," he said, referring to conclusions in the environmental report. "But I want to take care of it because it needs to be cleaned up."