Teatro ZinZanni is a very successful operation. The quirky combo of modern cirque, cabaret, and five-course dinner service has been in Seattle for 18 years. According to their promotional literature, the organization has generated nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in "economic activity" in that time, and draws an annual average of 60,000 patrons. And that's not including the San Francisco branch of ZinZanni, which opened on April Fools' Day, 2000.
But despite this success, the circus cabaret is on the brink of folding its tent. Barring the intervention of an angel investor, ZinZanni will have to shutter its Seattle operation in March, which will result in the loss of over 100 jobs, including waitstaff, administration, and performers.
It's easy to answer the question of how a thriving arts organization could come to such a pass in the Seattle of 2017. Far more complicated is the question of who deserves the blame. That inquiry involves wading through nearly a decade of leases and proposals, and weighing the divergent accounts of several stakeholding parties, each of whom represents drastically conflicting interests in an approximately 23,000-square-foot patch of land in Lower Queen Anne. In the end, where the blame will lie depends on where your sympathies lie: with the ringleader of the imperiled circus, with a powerful land development corporation, or with the Seattle Opera.
Let's start with the "how."
100 PEOPLE WILL BE OUT OF WORK
ZinZanni's antique spiegeltent and its 17 modular buildings stand on a plot of land between Roy and Mercer Streets and Second and Third Avenues. In 1999, the Kreielsheimer Foundation gifted the land to the Seattle Opera, who began renting it to ZinZanni in 2006. Prior to that date, ZinZanni had raised its tent at Sixth and Battery for nearly five years.
Since 2006, ZinZanni's lease has been extended three times. "The original lease expired January 31, 2012, and it was subsequently extended to 1/31/16, 1/31/17, and 3/15/17," says Kym Michela, spokesperson for Seattle Opera. "It has always been explicitly stated in the lease that the 'Lessor's long-term intent is to develop the Property for its own use or sell it...'" she says, citing Section 3.3 of the original lease.
In January of 2016, Seattle Opera arranged to sell the land to a development company called Washington Holdings. The purchase and sale agreement "stipulates that [WH] would purchase the site free of all tenants."
It's the most familiar story in Seattle arts: The land's been sold; you gotta go. As promised, the "how" is simple... to everyone except ZinZanni founder and artistic director Norm Langill. He talks about vacating the property as though it's theoretical, a subject that has yet to be decided. That's because, according to him, the March 15 deadline would spell the end of ZinZanni in Seattle altogether.
"It will be devastating for the company," Langill says. "One hundred people will be out of work—our entire staff."
Langill says the company needs about 18 months to close on a new location, secure permits, fold up its tent, and dismantle the modular buildings.
"When I say 'perilous,' I mean it," Langill says. "It will be extremely difficult for us. We will have no revenue and massive expenses to move."
He also argues that whatever physical changes Washington Holdings has in store for the property will require a lengthy process of research and permitting—"the neighborhood will look at a vacant lot for three years," he says—during which time ZinZanni could easily continue to operate while searching for a new home.
All he's asking for is more time—not just for himself, but for the 100 people who work for him.
"I want to try to keep the staff together," he says. "They're the best part of what we own. I don't want to lose them, and I don't want to start over."
"A STAPLE, A LANDMARK OF SEATTLE"
To that end, Langill has sought the support of the public. More than 1,600 people have signed a letter asking Washington Holdings to allow ZinZanni "the opportunity to stay at 222 Mercer, paying rent and property taxes, until the owner receives permits to begin new construction."
The names of many famous Seattle citizens, artists, and arts administrators have signed this letter, including most of Pearl Jam, Ann Wilson from Heart, John Richards of KEXP, Josh LaBelle of Seattle Theatre Group, Tom Douglas of Tom Douglas, Megan Jasper of Sub Pop, Virl Hill of Microsoft, Wier Harman of Town Hall, and Lane Czaplinski of On the Boards.
According to press materials, some 2,000 people have written directly to Washington Holdings, urging the company to stay ZinZanni's execution.
"Teatro ZinZanni has been a big part of celebrating important life events," writes one fan. "The most personal being where we went with family after I proposed to my wife atop the Space Needle. Teatro is a staple, a landmark of Seattle. It would be like losing the Public Market."
"On Mother's Day 2014, my husband and son took me and my mother to Teatro ZinZanni," writes another. "It was the last meal Mom was able to eat in a restaurant. She had a wonderful evening and smiled from ear to ear."
Though written in earnest, these letters may as well be addressed to Santa Claus. Or possibly Paul Allen. A large injection of cash might help the business stay afloat. But the future looks bleak otherwise. Come March 15, Teatro ZinZanni's lease with Seattle Opera expires. Washington Holdings is scheduled to close on the (tenant-free) land on March 31. The only person who thinks this is a negotiation, or a matter that can be changed by a show of public support, is Langill.
We are sentimentally disposed to sympathize with an underdog, especially one that's about to be displaced by a billion-dollar commercial real estate development company. But the sale of the land at 222 Mercer has been in the works since 2014, and Langill knew it. It's fair to wonder why, given his assertion that his company would require 18 months to find a new home, and given the 100 jobs hanging in the balance, he waited until he had six weeks left on a lease extension to start trying to make something happen.
To answer this brings us back to the complicated issues of blame and sympathies, and further, what is required of a savvy arts administrator in 2017 Seattle.
"WELL BELOW MARKET"
Adjacent to McCaw Hall, where Seattle Opera does all their fancy singing, is the Mercer Arena. It's been condemned for over a decade. In 2008, the city entered into a lease agreement to develop that site as the Opera's new civic home. Their performances would still be at McCaw Hall, but administrative offices—the costume shops, set buildings, education programs—would be located in the refurbished arena. In order to raise the money to pay for this, they needed to sell the land that ZinZanni is leasing.
In accordance with the stipulation of the Kreielsheimer Foundation's gift of the land, the Opera has "a fiduciary responsibility to sell 222 Mercer at fair market value." Basically, they're required to get the most money that they can for the land because they're obligated to, but also because this is America, and also because refurbishing a condemned arena is expensive.
Their initial lease granted ZinZanni "the right of first opportunity (ROFO) to purchase the property at market rate value," according to a spokesperson for Seattle Opera.
In September of 2014, Seattle Opera met with ZinZanni and asked if they planned to make use of that ROFO. Two months later, in November, ZinZanni sent a letter saying yes, but it "provided no specific terms, timeline, or financial capability regarding a purchase," according to Seattle Opera.
In January 2015, Teatro ZinZanni began to develop a vision for "a mixed-use building, anchored by ZinZanni and featuring 20 percent affordable housing for artists and arts workers who work in the Seattle Center Theatre District." Langill says at this same time he began looking for other places to move his tent. He needs 20,000 square feet of space, and he's looking in "central Seattle." It's a tall order.
Five months later, in April 2015, Seattle Opera says Langill presented them with a letter of intent to build Teatro ZinZanni's mixed-use building. The Opera's board rejected the proposal, saying that ZinZanni's bid was "well below market for the site" and there was "no reference to an equity or development partner in the written Letter of Intent or present in the verbal presentation."
ZinZanni disputes the latter claim. They say their development partner, Darius Anderson of Kenwood Investments, had met with Seattle Opera several times ahead of the April meeting, and Langill claims Anderson "or one of the representatives" was in the room for the presentation.
Anderson told me by phone that he couldn't recall if he attended the final presentation in April, but that he'd made his enthusiasm for the project clear to Seattle Opera.
Anderson's partner, Jay Wallace, shows on his calendar five "meetings or phone calls"—he's not sure which—"with the Opera and/or Heartland, its real estate consultant, concerning TZ's efforts in Seattle," but says he can't recall if he was at the at the April presentation or had made a phone call to Heartland and/or Seattle Opera that day.
Anyway, the proposal was rejected, and Langill calls it all "water under the bridge."
At this point, in April 2015, Langill was outbid. In December 2015, ZinZanni signed a lease for another year on the property.
Six months later, in June 2016, Langill claims he had a meeting with Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang and COO Rick Johnson. During this meeting, Langill says he asked if Teatro ZinZanni could stay on the property through 2018 "as a condition of sale" so they could secure a new location, etc. Either Johnson or Lang, according to Langill, replied verbally: "That sounds reasonable."
The next day, Langill says he followed up with a letter reiterating the request, but the letter does not include any mention of Johnson's and/or Lang's assurance. "I didn't feel like I needed to pin him to the wall," Langill said when I asked why he didn't mention their alleged verbal agreement.
Seattle Opera spokesperson Kym Michela is "sorry to hear that characterization of events. That is not accurate and Seattle Opera never encouraged any sense of agency on their behalf."
The Opera does acknowledge, though, that they'd had a discussion about including in their marketing materials to potential buyers, "as a courtesy," ZinZanni's desire to stay on the site for an interim period, and also to mention their interest in being incorporated into the building in some way.
THIS IS A FIRM REQUIREMENT
Langill says he hopes to negotiate directly with Washington Holdings, in the hopes of staying on the land through the entitlements phase. Washington Holdings does not acknowledge having ever communicated directly with Teatro ZinZanni.
I asked Maria Barrientos of Washington Holdings whether it would be possible for ZinZanni to stay. She says that "the purchase and sale agreement with the Opera stipulates that we would purchase the site free of all tenants. We don't yet know when construction would begin, but assuming we do close on the site, we would begin subsurface pre-development site work immediately, which requires us to have unobstructed access to the entire site."
According to Barrientos, the first 18 months of pre-development involves "drilling under the site in a number of locations to evaluate soil and subsurface conditions at a host of depths. The eastern half of the block, in particular, has not been adequately studied as the existing improvements, consisting of the Teatro Zinzanni tent and their associated modular structures, sit on the land in this area."
In addition to environmental testing, Barrientos says they need to "verify below-grade utility locations, many of which are unknown, as they were installed before the city started mapping locations," and also shut off water and electricity to the area during this process.
Langill says he would be only too happy to work with Washington Holdings during the digging. His tent, after all, sits on dirt. He says he can lift up a segment of his floor when they need to drill.
I asked Barrientos if her company would consider working with Langill during the entitlements period. She reminded me that the sales agreement stipulates that the site would be free of tenants. "This is a firm requirement," she added.
Though Langill is unquestionably a warm and sympathetic character, one thing remains somewhat baffling: What made him believe he would be able to navigate what was ultimately a real-estate transaction without being subject to the certainties of market capitalism?
"I think after working in town here for 45 years," he says, "I was operating in good faith. I was trying to make a win-win situation for everybody. I basically thought I was reasonable—when somebody purchases a site, you have the tenants stay on until you're ready to build something. You don't turn down the rent money out of principle. My natural assumption was this is a reasonable and common thing in real estate—not common in the sense that it's standard, but common in the sense that it happens."
For context, I asked Amy Worthington, a commercial real estate agent who worked on deals for Amazon's Seattle campus and the site location for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whether Langill's perception was accurate. "There isn't an absolute for a lot of these things," she says. "Every situation is unique. There are so many variables, and all those pile up to one set of plans that dictate how you proceed."
While Langill does sound reasonable, it also sounds like his assumptions were out of step with the current real estate market, and that, since at least 2014, he was living in a constant state of hoping for the best without planning for the worst.
And the worst is always out there.