The nonprofit Requiem Project filed a new lawsuit Jan. 14 against the University of Cincinnati over the right to renovate the long-neglected Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine.
The latest chapter in a nearly two-year fight over who should oversee the historical theater’s renovation, the suit alleges that UC has failed to uphold its end of a 1999 court ruling that allowed a for-profit company to develop most of the building into apartments.
Fast forward 15-plus years and the theater has seen little upkeep, let alone renovations. The building was formerly the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute, which housed the 1,600-seat Emery Theatre in the basement. Built in 1911, the concert hall was modeled after Carnegie Hall in New York City and is considered “acoustically pure.”
In addition to accusing UC of unnecessarily damaing the theater during the apartment development — the lawsuit says the theater was left without running water, heat, bathrooms and fire escapes, creating unnecessary obstacles to fixing the theater back up — the suit alleges that UC funneled $2.8 million in public money to the for-profit developer in 2001. It also says the university’s current argument for maintaining a tax abatement on the property contradicts its reasoning for renovating the building into apartments in the first place.
The Requiem Project’s leaders, Tina Manchise and Tara Gordon, founded the nonprofit in 2008 and in 2010 signed a letter of intent with the Emery Center Corp. (ECC) to renovate the theater. After temporarily opening the theater multiple times for special events and fundraisers, Requiem was evicted in 2013 after ECC refused to sign a long-term lease. The Requiem Project subsequently filed suit.
Manchise and Gordon back then argued that the organizations overseeing the building — the nonprofit ECC subleases from the for-profit Emery Center Apartments Limited Partnership (ECALP), which is leasing the building from the University of Cincinnati — backed out of the agreement to allow Requiem to oversee the renovation.
The new lawsuit alleges UC misused taxpayer funds by loaning $2.8 million to ECALP, the for-profit developer of the apartments, in 2001. Requiem says UC was unable to loan money directly to ECALP so it funneled the money through ECC, a nonprofit.
“The $2.8 million infused by UC into this project was in effect an equity investment of public money into a speculative real estate deal,” the suit states. “The grant transaction and associated loan were nothing more than window dressing to disguise UC’s investment in a risky for-profit transaction.”
The University of Cincinnati has repeatedly denied having a role in the dispute between Requiem and ECC, though it has acknowledged its relationship with ECALP, which shares board members with ECC, another point of contention for Requiem, according to the suit.
“ECC continued to maintain its new position that it could not agree to a sublease with Requiem without UC’s involvement,” the suit states. “UC continued to assert that any agreement must be reached with ECC. In short, ECC and UC whipsawed Requiem between themselves ensuring that even after Requiem’s significant investment of time, talent and treasure in the Emery, no formal sublease would be forthcoming.”
The lawsuit also alleges that due of a lack of oversight, UC could be facing increased property taxes on the building after a 12-year tax abatement expired in 2012. In order to keep the abatement, UC is arguing that the building’s use supports the university, which contradicts the argument it made in 1999 that the building’s facilities were “neither required nor will be required for the use of the university,” the lawsuit argues.
Requiem is seeking a long-term sublease of the theater, monetary compensation for lost revenue and income and other damages.