The Times today reports on some funny numbers running around the theater district. Here's what we understood of it: In 1998 legit theater, which like the Apple Computers of yore is always somewhat "beleaguered", was having some trouble getting patrons in the door to watch anything that a theater snob might call "passable." Money was desperately needed to kick things into gear. So the city struck a deal with a group called The Broadway Initiative, led by Gothamist-idol Stephen Sondheim, to provide more money not only for theater owners but for the theater community as well. The deal was simple: 25 theaters in the theater district (that'd be between 40th and 57th Streets and 6th and 8th Avenues) were given permission to sell their unused air-rights to any property also located in the district (instead of only to the usual rules which only allow air rights to be sold to neighboring plots). In exchange for this lenience anyone who bought up one of these theater's air rights would have to pay an extra $10 per square foot on top of the regular price. That extra money was to be then given to a new Theater Subdistrict Council which would spend 20 percent of it on monitoring theater conditions and the rest on bringing poorer city residents to the Great White Way. Sounds like a good, simple, idea, no?
We certainly liked it. But after the deal was struck Broadway hit a money-making streak. Thanks to an influx of tourists and occasional legit hits like 'Doubt' and 'The History Boys' air rights sales just weren't needed, so none happened. The Broadway Initiative shut down and the Theater Subdistrict Council was never set up to absorb any cash a transfer might produce. You can see where this is going.
Remember back in October when the once-great watering-hole McHale's shut its doors and plans were announced for a 42-story condominium tower to replace the six-story building it formally resided in? Sure you do. Well, in order for the new tower to go up it needs to buy a fair amount of air rights from around the 'hood. The developer has already bought 70,000 square feet from the nearby Brooks Atkinson theater in the old fashioned manner, but it still needs another 70k square feet. And so it is trying to buy the remaining air rights from the Al Hirschfeld Theater located up Eighth Avenue on 45th Street. "If approved by the Planning Commission and then the City Council, the sales of the Hirschfeld's air rights would yield about $580,000 for the Theater Subdistrict Council." And another pending deal on 54th Street could send yet another $1.4 million to the fund. But the problem is, there is no fund. So now the scramble is on to claim the cash.
First to raise its hand is the Department of Education which would really like to have some more money to fund its "Arts Space" program and for a program which stages summer musical productions starring public high school students. Others, like us, are not so sure that this is a great idea. As a short term solution to deal with a big influx of dough giving money to arts education seems like a great idea (because really, how can you not want to support public arts education?) but it also seems like a good way to blow a lot of cash quickly. And it doesn't really do much to help the sprawling theater community which is still, as always, in a precarious situation. We say the the Theater district should get its act together now, finally form the Subdistrict Council, and invest and spend this money carefully with input from across the theatrical spectrum. It'll be worth it in the long haul.