Plans for a downtown Guggenheim have been scrapped, and the Whitney Museum of American Art just nixed its Rem Koolhaas-designed expansion. Yet a startling number of cultural building projects has been going ahead full throttle across New York City, in defiance of war and the lackluster economy.
Many projects, of course, were planned during more robust times, and in some instances plans have been scaled back or delayed in the process. But even altered plans remain on track.
The vigorous and precedent-setting public debate about the World Trade Center site has dominated the headlines. Meanwhile, an array of other projects is already transforming the skyline — and the notion of Manhattan-centrism — as the city enters its second century as a five-borough metropolis. This kind of a makeover might not draw as much scrutiny in Los Angeles or Hong Kong. But cultural discussion is what makes New York New York.
“You don’t give up your aspirations because of a bad economy,” says Reynold Levy, prexy of Lincoln Center. “Leaders built Lincoln Center when there were many naysayers, who said it wasn’t economically feasible. Ever since it has been touted as one of the premiere performance spaces in the world.”
A quarter-century after that performing arts landmark transformed the Upper West Side, Levy is continuing the tradition of against-the-odds development by embarking on a $1.2 billion facelift for the center. The project will take place in phases — as will the fund-raising — beginning with the 65th Street entrance, where construction will begin next year to make the shadowy street more of a grande allee.
Next up for overhaul are the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall, which will either be gutted or rebuilt. And in the fall of 2004 the Uptown arts mecca will enlarge its campus to the AOL Time Warner Center, currently rising on Columbus Circle, where Jazz at Lincoln Center will settle in among Jean-Georges Vongerichten eateries and high-end grocery stores.
Lincoln Center has not been completely immune to economics, however. Levy’s plans are considerably more modest than an initial proposal featuring a Frank Gehry-designed glass dome to cover the plaza.
But projects without such designer names attached, and the prices they demand, are going ahead with little to no tailoring.
Carnegie Hall is one example. Although the original opening of its new 644-seat Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall was delayed by nine months following the Sept. 11 attacks (“Basically, I did not want to put an additional 50,000 tickets into the marketplace at that time,” says Robert Harth, executive and artistic director for Carnegie Hall), the hall is now scheduled for programming this fall. The space will make Carnegie a three-hall complex and will broaden its programming to include jazz, and even country and rock.
Two new dance spaces are also on the horizon. The Baryshnikov Center for Dance on West 37th Street and the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation’s new home on West 55th are both slated to open next year.
Theater, too, is seeing a resurgence in building and restoration. On tap are a redone Biltmore, three new spaces at the Baryshnikov Center and five Off-Broadway theaters under the auspices of Dodger Theatricals, which produced “Urinetown.”
Music promoters are also a bit restless for new horizons.
“Madison Square Garden is an amazing hall, but seat-for-seat it has got to be the most expensive venue in the entire country,” says Johnny Podell, a live-music veteran and partner at Evolution Talent Agency.
The potential new venue that draws some of the most excitement from bookers is the proposed multipurpose stadium for the west side of Manhattan. Near that site, a 3,000-seat theater inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center is “very under-utilized,” says John Scher, president of Metropolitan Entertainment. It could make an excellent alternative to better-known spaces like the Roseland or the Beacon Theater.
Also encouraging to the biz is the almost-complete renovation of the city’s Randall’s Island venue, which will include a new entertainment center and athletic facilities. Cirque du Soleil is currently enticing people to their spectacle on the island, and though its shows have a unique draw, at least they are introducing Gothamites to tram travel.
“The stuff that’s being done seems to be turning it from a third-class festival site into a first-class one,” says another promoter. “That’s always a good thing.”
No hard and fast reason explains why this spurt in construction is happening now. One theory is simply that these projects tend to have long gestation periods and they are coming to fruition now.
“Much of this building is very much the product of the good times of the past few years,” says Frances Halsband, a partner in the firm of Kliment and Halsband Architects and a former commissioner of Gotham’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “It also takes a long time to get a project just right. Five years is nothing in this business.”
The other motivation is burgeoning demand for cultural venues, which has little relationship to the economy.
“If you look at how much bigger and broader the audience for culture has become in the last generation, then it’s not that surprising that even if the economy is troubled, people are not lying down and playing dead,” asserts Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New Yorker.
Robert Ivy, editor in chief of Architectural Record, chalks it up to history: “It’s part of the maturation of the culture. America has always been self-conscious about being in the act of becoming. We’ve always felt historically that we were not Europe, that we had to catch up. Now we’re building these cultural institutions in a flurry in order to recognize the vibrancy of American art.”
Of all new building news, however, none has generated more citywide interest than the announcement earlier this year of Daniel Libeskind as the architect in charge of rebuilding the World Trade Center site. While the main focus of the project is on a memorial park and office and commercial space, Studio Libeskind’s design will also bring up to 380,000 square feet of museum and cultural space, and a performing arts center with a 2,000 seat auditorium to Lower Manhattan. The latter is being eyed as a possible new home for the New York City Opera, which is currently housed at Lincoln Center.
How and when exactly that space will be carved up is yet to be determined. “As fast as they’re going, it’s a very slow process,” says a spokesperson for Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder for the site. At best, construction would not be complete for another five to six years.
Another wrinkle was added to the situation last month when Alex Garvin, the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.’s veep for planning, quit.
“Libeskind’s plan is already subject to massaging and political pressure,” says Ivy. “With Garvin leaving, the advocate for design within the LMDC is in question at this point. The future of that site remains very much a conversation piece. It’s something we bandy about.”
Nevertheless, the idea of a major cultural destination in Lower Manhattan is novel for a city that packs most of its major performance venues north of 34th Street.
“There’s a real movement to decentralize the arts in the city,” says Harvey Lichtenstein, chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Local Development Corp. “It’s moved down to the Village, SoHo and Tribeca, and now it’s crossed the river. Williamsburg is a thriving artists’ community, St. Anne’s Warehouse is in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and even Redhook and Fort Green are starting to weigh in.”
(Not to mention Queens, where the Museum of Modern Art has relocated while its Midtown digs are being freshened up, and has made a case for German tourists to take the 7 train.)
Lichtenstein would know. As the director of BAM for 32 years, where he transformed a second-rate theater into a music, dance and film destination worth crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for, Lichtenstein is a big believer in disrupting a cultural grid dominated by Uptown Manhattan’s big guns: Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Great White Way.
Currently Lichtenstein is heading a $630 million renovation and new construction project that will expand a four-block area around BAM into a multicultural arts district to include at least two theaters, galleries and rehearsal, performance and office space.
“It’s not a big blockbuster like BAM,” Lichtenstein concedes. “But when this kind of activity happens in the city it usually upgrades the whole community.”
More proof of the borough’s growing credibility as an arts destination came in 2001, when Mark Morris opened his dance studio across the street from BAM.
Nonetheless, some call venues such as BAM, which are not located within walking distance of Columbus Circle, “geographically challenged,” and predict that with all the Midtown growth, there will be less incentive to go elsewhere for culture.
Goldberger says that more downtown and outer-borough venues are likely in the future, due to the city’s increasingly downtown-centric residential map.
“The demographics of New York have shifted a lot. It’s been a long time since the only acceptable middle-class places to live have been the Upper West and Upper East Sides. The cultural audience is more spread out, so it follows that cultural facilities will also be more spread out.”
(Justin Oppelaar contributed to this report.)