NEW YORK — Passionate and drawn-out testimony piled up in Room 16 at City Hall on Wednesday.The City’s Planning Commission heard more than 100 speakers testify on the sale of Broadway theaters’ “air rights” — the difference between a theater’s actual size and the maximum allowable size permitted by local zoning regulations.
The proposal started as a Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-backed $20 million panacea for Broadway’s financial woes in December. Some 25 Broadway theaters would be able to sell their “air rights” and transfer that space to developers building theaters in the midtown theater district.
Since then, it has become a hotly contested showdown between residents of and small business owners in Hell’s Kitchen, who fear the arrival of skyscrapers that will decimate the area’s character and drive rents through the roof.
They battle the Broadway’s theater owners, producers and unions, who stand to reap millions from the sales.
“It will create tremendous pressure to force out low-income people in (the area),” said Bob Kalin, director of Housing Conservation Coordinators, and one of those at the Wednesday hearing.
Kalin added that he was concerned that the development, once started, would spread to Ninth Avenue. A source on the commission said that it will not budge on including at least part of the area west of Eighth Avenue.
Concern about tenant harassment was expressed even by Actors’ Equity Assn. leadership as well, which is supporting the proposal.
“While we have not reversed out decision supporting the sale of the air rights,” said Alan Eisenberg, executive director, “we are concerned about what will happen to the area west of Eighth Avenue, the harassment of tenants and the raising of rent.”
Broadway Initiative fund
Part of the proposal has theater owners donating $10 of each square foot sold to a fund operated by the Broadway Initiative, a consortium of theater owners and producers. Current estimates on what the sale of air rights would generate range from $4 million to a potential kitty of $20 million. But local leaders who spoke today said that that assumed that all of the air rights would be sold, and that the real estate boom would continue.
“You’re hitching your ride to an unknown quantity,” said Councilman Tom Duane, who represents the Clinton district, adding, “What happens when the real estate market goes bust? Why are we not looking at direct aid to the theater district?”
Indeed, the Giuliani administration has proposed cuts in its aids to the arts.
“The amount of money from the sale of the air rights is not the only source of funding, but the primary,” said Joseph Rose, chairman of the City Planning commission. “The goal is 20% of a buildable square foot. Realistically, we think that were in aggressive real estate market, and that you’ll see 20% to 25% of the rights sold in the next three years. That’s several million dollars.”
Insiders say that whatever happens, the commission still has enough members (seven appointed by Giuliani) to pass the resolution and bring it before the entire City Council for a vote by early June.