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418 Project Purchases Riverfront Theater in Downtown Santa Cruz

Move will allow dance group to expand its programming

The 418 Project’s Lead Artist Dandha Da Hora teaches Afro-Brazilian dance, accompanied by live drums, at the organization’s original location, 418 Front St. in Santa Cruz. It plans to move to the much larger space at 155 South River St., former home of the Riverfront Theater, in the coming weeks. PHOTO: SWANDIVE MEDIA

For the past 28 years, The 418 Project has been a hub for the Santa Cruz dance community.

The nonprofit, started in 1993 by modern dancer Rita Rivera, offers a number of programs and shares its space with other communities such as samba, capoeira and African dance. It has become an incubator for local artists, providing affordable spaces for classes and development.

Now the organization is taking a huge step with the announcement that it has purchased and will soon be moving into the former Riverfront Theater at 155 South River St. in downtown Santa Cruz. The move will allow the group to expand its programming and become more of a focal point in the downtown arts scene.

“We feel very excited about this opportunity,” says Laura Bishop, executive director of The 418 Project. “We’ve definitely maxed out at our current space over the years. With this move, we can greatly expand our services.”

The Riverfront Theater closed in 2018, and the venue reopened in 2019 as DNA’s Comedy Lab. But just as Santa Cruz’s first comedy club was taking off, it became the first local venue to close due to Covid-19 in March of last year. Though it continues to host virtual events at dnascomedylab.com, it never reopened its door on South River and was forced to give up the space in January.

Enter The 418 Project, whose original building is just a few blocks down the road. Bishop says she hopes the new location will create a strong connection between the main arts centers in downtown, from the Museum of Art and History to The 418 and out to the new Dragon Gate overlooking the San Lorenzo River.

“It’s going to be amazing finally having a large, permanent space to call home,” Bishop says. “And we hope us being here will bring even more people to downtown to shop, to dine. We want to be part of getting our local economy going again.”

Bishop has been involved with The 418 Project since she first moved to the area in 2005. She began volunteering and eventually landed the role as executive director.

“I saw so much good grow out of [the organization],” she says. “We are a quintessential Santa Cruz group. We support artists, small businesses, people of color, people of all ethnicities and genders. The 418 is a true community space.”

Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers says having The 418 purchase the theater also adds to the continued revitalization along the San Lorenzo River, a movement she has been involved in for years.

“We’ve been trying to activate the river, not only by providing housing along it but other types of businesses as well,” Meyers says. “Just think about the Tannery [Arts Center], how popular and important it’s become. This will be another arts venue along the river. And this [theater] is such an important venue for Santa Cruz.”

On Wednesday, April 14, The 418 Project will host a special Covid-safe event to celebrate its purchase and vision for the theater. Bishop, Meyers, Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb and Civic Leader George Ow Jr. will speak about how the new center will help reinvigorate the area.

A procession will go from The 418’s current location to its new home, which Bishop says is to symbolize the transition.

“It’s about saying goodbye to our old space and hello to our new one,” Bishop says.

Also at the event, Meyers will proclaim April 18 day as “4/18 Day.”

“We’re just super thrilled to have [The 418] invest in downtown Santa Cruz, that they would use their resources like this,” Meyers says. “Their vision for the building … it sounds like a perfect fit.”

Architectural designers Nielsen Studios, who designed nearby Abbott Square Market, will be heading up design of the project. Bishop says they are continuing to look for unique ways to use the space. This may include the creation of a “green roof,” with a rooftop garden and gathering place overlooking the city and river.

They also welcome community input, Bishop says.

“We are asking people to share their dreams about how they want to make this place feel like home,” she says. “Please, let us know.”

Bishop says they are looking forward to reopening The 418 Project in the coming weeks, as Covid-19 restrictions continue to be lifted.

“We’re all longing for connection, to be together again,” Bishop says. “We’re so excited to be investing in this so that people, their kids, and their kids’ kids will be able to gather here for generations.”

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