Dozens of theater groups, hundreds of artists and thousands of patrons may stand to lose a 30-year-old Hell’s Kitchen theater venue, unless a local theater company can manage to rent it. Before that happens, however, the company must convince the Department of Buildings to change some 50-year-old paperwork.
The simple solution would be to hire an architect to re-measure the space, take those measurements to the DOB for review, show that the space complies with the proper guidelines, and get a certificate of occupancy that reflects three decades of precedent.
Sometimes, that process can get a bit more complicated.
The Emerging Artists Theatre Company (EAT)
has been trying to lease the space at 354 West 45th
St., which has a 99-seat theater on its ground floor and is known informally as the 45th
Street Theatre, since last February. But according to the building’s 1959 certificate of occupancy, that space is in fact supposed to house offices and a recording studio.
The DOB issued three violations related to the building’s use as a theater between 1997 and 2009, records show. Rather than change the certificate of occupancy, though, the owner paid whatever he was fined.
Members of the community hope that the theater will not become another casualty of real estate development. “I’m just afraid that there are not many performing arts organizations that have the wherewithal or guts to take on a long-term lease,” said David M. Pincus, co-chair of the Quality of Life committee of Community Board Four. “You have to be brave to make that kind of commitment. It’s a very impressive feat.”
Prospective tenant Emerging Artists Theatre Company (EAT) has a history of subleasing to smaller nonprofit theatrical groups, part of the reason Pincus hopes it will succeed.
“These theaters support smaller theaters,” said Pincus. “They solidify the core of performing arts theatre in New York City.”
The process of changing the documentation should not take more than a few weeks, according to Pincus. EAT, which supports emerging playwrights and artists developing new work, was a development casualty at its last two midtown homes. The first was demolished almost four years ago to make way for a 42nd
St. high rise. The second was transformed into increased office space inside a 43rd
St. building, said Paul Adams, EAT’s artistic director. EAT has been housed at TADA! Youth Theater
, a children’s theater on 28th St., since 2009.
Adams first learned of the vacancy on the ground floor from a former EAT member. He met with the landlord last February to discuss the possibility of a five-year lease. “The place needs a lot of love and attention,” he said. “It’s been neglected for a long time. We want to go in, like we’ve done in all the other instances, and clean up the space, put in new seats, make it into a really nice performance space and a welcoming space for an audience.”
Adams says EAT is prepared to pay for nearly all of the renovations themselves, which will include replacing four rows of broken seats, substituting a wheelchair-accessible slope for stairs, and building a spiral staircase to replace an old ladder. Total costs should run about $40,000, according to Adams’s estimate. The theater company’s board of directors is willing to put $20,000 of their own money toward renovations. The rest will depend on fundraising and other donors — little over a year ago, the group raised nearly $8,000 from homemade cookie sales.
There is, however, a hitch. EAT can only get the partial certificate of occupancy if it can show that the ground floor takes up less than 20 percent of the gross measurements of the building. EAT’s architect found that the ground floor took up only 17.6 percent, but according to DOB guidelines, the architect should have included an elevator and a lobby in his calculations. A DOB spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Last March, Adams realized he had a problem on his hands. Pincus became a liaison of sorts, and the community board voted to write a letter in support of the theater to Council Speaker Christine Quinn in September. A legislative aide in Quinn’s office gave feedback as the community board’s Quality of Life and Land Use committees drafted the letter to the DOB, which was sent last month.
Because the landlord cannot afford the renovations that would be necessary to change the entire certificate of occupany, the partial certificate is the only solution. Everyone is waiting with bated breath for the DOB to reach a verdict.
“In real estate, time is money, and the sooner this can be resolved the better for everyone,” Virginia Louloudes, executive director of A.R.T. New York, said in an email. According to Louloudes, the city has lost at least 50 theaters, each holding 99 seats or less, due to rising real estate costs. “Some have become health clubs; others restaurants. Emerging Artist Theatre seems to have found the sweet spot – an affordable rent and a board [of directors] willing to help cover renovation costs. If the C of O is reached and EAT can create another theater space, it would be a win-win for the neighborhood, the theatre community, and the City.”
The building’s owner could not be reached for comment by deadline.