BOBBY FRANKLIN had an idea. Next to his piano shop on Brighton Avenue in Allston, a storefront stands empty. "There's less than a thousand square feet in there, but I thought if I built a stage, I could turn it into a mini-theater -- a little space for the arts, like a workshop for plays or a place for music."
Not another bar, he hastens to add. Allston has too many of those already. "I was thinking I could put in a little coffee bar," he says. "Espresso, maybe some baked goods. I'm not looking to make a lot of money, but I figure being nonalcoholic is a selling point. It would be the one place around here where performers could get up before a crowd that wasn't loaded."
Everyone he's talked to applauds the idea. His landlord. Nearby businesses. Local activists. "Great idea," effuses Paul Berkeley, head of the Allston Civic Association. "The neighborhood is all for it."
Theater people love it. "We need this so badly," avows Marg-e Kelley, who is winding up a long stint as manager of the Charles Playhouse. "Every year, another performance space is lost in this town. This could be perfect for a small acting company -- someplace new playwrights, new actors, directors could try stuff out. People in the arts need a home to develop things in, without always having to be vagabonds."
Kelley is a veteran of the Boston theatrical struggles. Sandi Carroll, who just earned an acting degree from Boston University's School for the Arts, is a new enlistee.
"My entire graduating class except me went to New York because there's no performance space here," reports Carroll, a founder of the fledgling Small Change Theater. "And without space, there's no work." Small Change works out of Studio 210 at the Boston University Theater, "but when the summer is over, we have to leave. I don't know where we're going to go."
I don't know either, Sandi, but it isn't going to be Bobby Franklin's stage on Brighton Avenue. Not unless there's an outbreak of sanity in Tom Menino's City Hall. Not unless the Department of Inspectional Services stops strangling good ideas with deadly red tape. Not unless somebody on the city payroll actually decides to give a damn about whether one man's modest dream stands a chance of ever coming true.
Thinking his major hurdle would be the fire code, Franklin asked the Fire Department for an inspection. The fire inspector came, looked the place over and told him to install exit signs.
"I thought, That's it? Great, I'm all set," Franklin recalls. "So I went to Inspectional Services to get an occupancy permit." And the runaround began.
"They told me I had to have handicapped-accessible bathrooms" -- not downstairs, where plumbing already exists, but upstairs, in the performance area. "At least two of them. And they each had to be at least 6 feet by 6 feet, not counting the sinks and the walls.
"It would cost me $20,000, and I don't have that kind of money. I tried to explain how small the space is. If I put bathrooms in, there won't be room for a theater. For anybody. For a case like mine, I felt there should be a waiver. But he just kept saying, 'That's the law. That's the law.'"
Franklin sought out Bruce Rossley, the cultural affairs commissioner. Useless. He tried his city councilor, Brian McLaughlin. Useless. He tried Kathleen Kelliher at the Office of Business Services -- the mayor's much-touted "one-stop shopping center" for small businesses. She told him to call Tom O'Donnell back in Inspectional Services. After trying for two weeks, he phoned her back.
"At first she didn't remember who I was. Then she said if I kept the theater under 20 seats, I didn't need bathrooms. What good is a theater with 19 seats?"
On and on it went. This hack said maybe he could get by with a unisex bathroom. That hack said he could petition the state plumbing board for a variance. What about opening with no bathrooms for anybody?
"If I did that, I was told, somebody would file a complaint with the Justice Department. I'm trying to support the arts in Allston, and they're throwing Janet Reno at me!"
Dubious lawyers started showing up, telling Franklin they would "take care of City Hall" for $2,500. A city inspector claimed he could "move things along" -- oh, and by the way, he's backing so-and-so for City Council, if Franklin catches his drift.
"You have to play ball with them," a local restaurateur told him. "Let them know you want to deal."
Is that how it works in your city, Mayor Menino? Honest men have to bribe your employees in order to start up an enterprise?
Seven months have elapsed. Franklin has yet to get a straight answer from City Hall. And even if he gets through the bathroom maze, then what? "I'd have to get a conditional-use certificate," he says. "Then the electrical inspector. To sell coffee I'll need a common victualer's license. Some kind of milk license for the cream. Plus an entertainment license. I haven't gotten to any of that.
"When I first imagined this, I thought I could make it happen for under $10,000. Now I have no idea what it would cost. Or how long it'll take. I really don't know how I can do it anymore."