When the curtain rose this spring on a plan to let Broadway theater owners reap windfall profits by selling air rights, some of New York's richest showmen actually pleaded poverty. Theaters were dark more than half the time, they argued, while the costs of productions soared. Problem was, the dark time they cited conveniently stretched back 30 years, and belied the fact that in more recent history, Broadway has drawn record-breaking crowds.
If there is further need of proof that the poor-mouthing by moguls including the Shubert Organization, Broadway's largest theater owner was an act (though an ultimately convincing one, since the City Council voted to let theater owners cash in on an air rights version of a land grab), consider this: The Shuberts are now hatching plans to add another 499 theater seats in the Times Square area. So much for not being able to fill the house.
The plan comes via the 42nd Street Development Corporation and Shubert, and aims to redevelop Theater Row, a half-block span of buildings that the development corporation owns on 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue. Established 20 years ago in an early effort to sweep sex out of Times Square, the Theater Row project transformed tenements that housed sex shops into small Off-Broadway theaters, rehearsal spaces, and offices.
The current plan would demolish most of the buildings in the row and replace them with a Shubert theater plus another three or four 99-seat houses topped with a 250-unit apartment building primarily for market-rate renters. It will be built by the Brodsky Organization, which reportedly has agreed to pay the development corporation $10 million for the property and air rights above the low-rise buildings.
To some, the combination of theater and apartment tower sounds like another round of development plans masquerading as theater preservation. "My question is, is this about theater or about real estate?" asks Hell's Kitchen activist John Fisher. "I've spent 15 years in theater and I love it dearly and understand its needs. But I don't think what we need is the destruction of these buildings and a new luxury tower that is going to further cut the neighborhood in half and bring in people who demand upscale everything. We lose our small hardware stores, our restaurants, our shoe repair shops, the whole neighborhood."
Like other West Siders, Fisher is still smarting from the battle that allowed owners of low-rise Broadway theaters to sell their air rights to developers who want to build within a 50-block midtown radius a move that will make for bulkier, taller buildings along the border of Hell's Kitchen and Clinton. A new 30-story high-rise wedged in between the 45-story towers of Manhattan Plaza would only add to the walled-off feeling.
"We're not thrilled to have yet another luxury high-rise, and we'd like to see some discussion of more mixed income," said Pam Frederick, chair of Community Board 4. The plan calls for 80 percent of the units to be market-rate, with the rest for low- and middle-income a scheme that gives developers tax abatements. "That's not bad, but can we do better?"
Frederick notes that the proposed project is "as of right," meaning that the developers need little in the way of zoning changes or approval from city agencies, including the community board. Adds Frederick, "There's really nothing for us to weigh in on here."
Two weeks ago, development company president Fred Papert presented the plan to Community Board 4. The smaller theaters, he said, are designed to attract straight plays (read: serious drama, not titanic spectacle), whose demise has been much lamented. The reasoning goes that just because shows like Cats and Phantom play to full Broadway houses does not mean that straight plays are thriving; in fact, most nonmusical productions can't carry larger houses. So smaller theaters are needed for Off-Broadway productions, and in newer buildings.
"What we have now is these hundred-year-old tenement buildings where the plumbing is getting weak and the walls are getting weak, so if you fart on the top floor you got problems at the bottom of the building," says Papert. "We are going to build new theaters that are better shaped, and they'll be prettier, with better electrical, lighting, all that."
Papert says the proposal is a plus for the neighborhood. "This will only enliven what over the years have been desolate and unpleasant and dangerous parts of town," says Papert. "Manhattan Plaza got it started and we got artists in there because we thought that plus Theater Row would anchor a renewal, and it worked," he says, noting that most of the apartments in Manhattan Plaza are reserved for performing artists. "What gives us a certain cheerful symmetry is that our original idea was to renew the neighborhood and make it attractive for private investment. Well now, the private investment is coming right to where we started it, on top of Theater Row."
Indeed, the lure of Clinton and Hell's Kitchen is obvious as luxury towers spring up even west of Eighth Avenue. In late September, bids were due to the city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to build an apartment building on Tenth Avenue at 54th Street on a city-owned parcel. Whoever wins the bid must limit market-rate rents to 80 percent of the units.
"I've heard the response was more than HPD expected and they were very happy with the quality," says one source. "The developers are so anxious to get in this neighborhood, they did not balk at the income guidelines." Megadevelopers like the Brodsky Organization, Rockrose Development, Harry Macklowe Real Estate Company, Helmsley-Spear, and Donald Zucker are thought to be among the bidders.
Ironically, the developer favored by the local community board, the nonprofit Settlement Housing Fund, offers the most generous income mix, with only 70 percent of the units going market-rate. But the fund faces an uphill battle. "I think we have the best proposal, but I don't know if we can compete with the big boys," says the fund's associate director Susan Cole. "The city will pick whoever offers the highest bid for the land, and that's not our mission. We want to build housing to fulfill the community needs."
Sources say HPD is expected to select a developer in two or three weeks. During that same interval, Papert says he hopes to work out crucial details to make a June 1999 groundbreaking on Theater Row possible.
"Talk to me again in about two weeks," says Papert. "What we have now is a nice idea, and everyone seems to be enthusiastic. When we see a shovel in the ground, we'll all know for sure that this is going to happen."
Five candidates vying for the City Council seat vacated by Tom Duane, who was elected state senator, will debate Monday, December 7, at 8 p.m. at Hartley House, 413 West 46th Street. The district includes Clinton, Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, and parts of Greenwich Village.
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