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County to Ask Public What Arts Programming Should Replace Inner Ear Studios

A look inside Inner Ear Studios in Shirlington (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Once the epicenter of D.C.’s punk scene, Inner Ear Recording Studios it is set to be razed by Arlington County to make way for an outdoor entertainment space.

The new open space, comprised of two parcels of land — 2700 S. Nelson Street and 2701 S. Oakland Street — would be part of the county’s efforts to implement an arts and industry district in Green Valley.

Arlington Cultural Affairs says a community engagement process exploring temporary uses for the site could begin later this fall or, more likely, in early 2022. Dealing with the optics of demolishing a famed recording studio to build an arts and industry district, the arts division argues the space responds to community needs and makes art more accessible.

“The exploration of outdoor activation space as a short-term possibility for the site is a direct result of our conversations with the surrounding community,” Arlington Cultural Affairs Director Michelle Isabelle-Stark said. “Bringing the arts outdoors and into the community is a low-cost, high-impact way to reach a broader and more diverse audience as we continue to explore the needs of the surrounding community.”

The outdoor space would tie into the Theatre on the Run venue, used by a number of Arlington-based dance and theatre ensembles, she said. And it would support existing programming, such as New District Brewing Co.’s outdoor beer festival, Valley Fest, as well as other cultural events.

Isabelle-Stark added that there’s an equity component to the open space.

“As the County continues to explore ways to address long-standing equity issues as it pertains to arts and culture opportunities, the addition of expanded outdoor performance space allows us to continue to present the arts outside of traditional brick and mortar venues and directly engage with the community,” she said.

So, after many years of recording bands including the Foo Fighters, Fugazi and Minor Threat, studio owner Don Zientara has until Dec. 31, 2021 to pack up the gear and the memorabilia before the building is demolished.

Crumbling cinder blocks and communication 

Before the county agreed to acquire the building, Zientara told ARLnow he was at a crossroads: move the studio or retire. At 73, retirement was an option, and on top of that, the building was decrepit and recording sessions were down due to the pandemic. The county acquisition merely expedited that decision.

As soon as the building is demolished, the county says it’ll park its mobile stage there and start hosting outdoor performances, festivals, markets and movie screenings. Isabelle-Stark says South Arlington needed an outdoor arts venue — a community-generated idea. She told the Washington Post that the acquisition saved the property from being sold to a private developer for a non-arts-related development.

As this unfolded, the Green Valley Civic Association, a longtime champion of reinvestment and an arts district, criticized the county for the acquisition.

“It is curious for the county to spend millions to purchase and demolish a building, but state that intended cultural events will be provided in the remaining lot only if funds are available,” GVCA First Vice President Robin Stombler tells ARLnow.

At least the arts district could pay homage to Inner Ear, she said.

“Losing a small, yet significant, arts-related business is antithetical to this vision” of an arts and industry district in Green Valley, she wrote in a June letter to the county. “As the county takes a step in support of the district, it should recognize what is being left behind.”

She suggests naming the county’s mobile stage “Inner Ear Stage.” In addition, she said Zientara had indicated willingness to sell some music equipment to the county, which she recommended be used for a new recording studio in Green Valley for musicians and music educators.

“There has been no response to date,” she told ARLnow.

Stombler has criticized what she characterizes as a lack of communication from the county before. In a letter to the County Board she sent in April, she said county staff never engaged with the community about the acquisition of Inner Ear.

“While it is gratifying to see the County embrace our general ideas for an arts & industry quarter, the continued lack of communication, preparation, transparency, and respect must improve,” Stombler wrote.

She tells ARLnow that demolishing Inner Ear departs from the “light industry and arts development” recommended by the Four Mile Run Valley Arts District Committee.

“The intent of this district is to reinvest in Green Valley, not through major redevelopment, but through revitalization and creative innovation,” she said.

Future engagement

The county is considering paying homage to Inner Ear, Isabelle-Stark said.

“We are looking forward to the artist-driven ideas for shaping this new space that honor the legacy of Inner Ear while supporting the creation of new work,” she said.

She added that she hopes to see ideas come forward from the arts community as well as neighbors and business communities in the community engagement process.

Arlington has done one of two recommended rounds of engagement, said Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development spokeswoman Elise Cleva. The first ended in October 2019.

“The second phase halted in 2020, when it became clear that COVID-19 realities would constrain County investments to incremental opportunities, in line with existing programs and funding,” Cleva said.

Getting the work done

While the district is a joint venture between Cultural Affairs and the CPHD, the planning division is taking a back seat because there are no planning hurdles impeding the growth of an arts district, Cleva says.

“Many of the potential types of uses that are envisioned in the plan for the area could likely be accommodated within the existing zoning and planning conditions — and to our current knowledge, specific changes are not needed to accommodate any outstanding requests,” she said.

When the County Board learned this during a meeting last month, Board Member Christian Dorsey urged staff not to defer work and turn the plan into a “vision for the arts that’s all fluff and concept and doesn’t have any tools for implementation.”

“I for one don’t believe that we should continue to allow the Four Mile Run area to wait while we tackle other priorities,” he said. “It’s well within us to put on paper the kinds of tools to make an arts district come to life down there. It seems to me the longer we wait, the more expensive it gets, the more difficult it gets. We should really strike while the iron is hot.”

When ARLnow asked Cleva and Isabelle-Stark to respond to this, both said the same thing: there are already several ongoing projects that will contribute to the district.

Jennie Dean Park is being redeveloped and will be getting a public art installation. The Green Valley Town Square is being renovated, albeit running behind schedule. A handful of transportation improvements — upgrades to pedestrian and bicycle connections along the Four Mile Run Trail and Shirlington Road and the realignment of S. Four Mile Run Drive — are also coming. A new Arlington Transit (ART) operations and maintenance facility is going up near Shirlington Road and I-395.

While eager to see more work, Board Vice-Chair Katie Cristol warned against squarely placing the burden of building up the district with the county.

“There’s some risk [that] by arts and industry district, we mean exclusively government investment in arts,” she said. “And we know that’s not a sustainable way to create arts and culture in general, let alone in a district… [and] we’re giving credence to the idea — which creates an expectation that we’ll never be able to fill — that any arts and culture footprint is going to come from public dollar investment.”

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