There’s a thread through New York’s history linking the stories of neighborhood folks who fought development they didn’t like, from the losing battle to Robert Moses over the Cross Bronx, to the win on Westway, to defeating the Jets stadium and debating Atlantic Yards. The latest chapter might be written in Harlem, where a community group is raising money to fund a potential legal war against plans to redevelop a historic theater on 125th Street. The problem this time isn’t the redevelopment itself, but who might be doing it.
The Victoria Theater, built in 1917, hearkens back to an era when movie theaters were palaces. The grandeur has faded—the Victoria most recently was a multiplex—but it’s still considered eligible for listing on the National Registry of Historic Places. And now that Harlem is surging, the state Economic Development Corporation and its local affiliate, the Harlem Community Development Corporation, want to redevelop the theater in a way that “will complement and enhance this fabled thoroughfare in the heart of Harlem . . . while taking into account the goals and needs of the local community and the benefits to New York City as a whole.”
One of the bidders was the Haarlem Victoria Restoration Group, led by veteran community activist Ethel Bates. Bates’ record includes saving the fire bell tower at Marcus Garvey Park, resisting efforts to change the name of that park from Garvey back to Mount Morris, and going to court to stop the city from selling off the 19th century Corn Exchange Building at 125th and Park, where she plans to start a Harlem Culinary Institute. HVRG proposed a “2,300 + seat performance theatre, a boutique hotel, a four-star restaurant, and a multi-media production studio” for the Victoria.
But HVRG missed the deadline to submit its proposal, so it wasn’t considered among the groups of developers that the EDC and HCDC have looked at (It’s disputed just how much power HCDC wields in all this).
Word on the street is that the list of bidders has been winnowed to four, headed by Apollo Real Estate Advisers, which recently entered a partnership with Harlem entities that fused development with job training. The New York Times back in February reported that Apollo and the other bidders (including Victoria Tower Development and Full Spectrum) are proposing combinations of hotels, condos, office space, and cafes. A winning bidder was supposed to have been selected already; now a spokeswoman for the EDC says they “expect to have a decision in the next few months.”
But Bates argues that her group is the only true community voice in the project, and argues that her group’s proposal is the only one that really wants to resurrect the Victoria as a working theater. So she’s arming for a legal fight to challenge whoever the state names as the winning bidder. That fight will take money, so the Restoration Group is hosting a New Year’s Eve fundraiser at the United Palace Theater featuring acts like The Persuaders.
The big show, Bates says, comes after that. The State Historic Preservation Office will have to review the plans because of the theater’s historic character. And a final deal might not come down until really close to Election Day. “If it does,” Bates says, “we stand a good chance to apply pressure.”