The Manhattan Borough Board voted April 16 to oppose New York City Planning Department's controversial proposal to rezone a Midtown stretch of Eighth Avenue in the midst of the Broadway theatre district, and Borough President C. Virginia Fields will most likely follow suit.
Ellen Ryan of The Broadway Theater Institute, which hosted an open forum on the subject April 15, said the board voted down the proposal, which would allow developers to building beyond current Eighth Avenue zoning restrictions by purchasing the air rights over Broadway theatres. The board, which includes all Manhattan City Council members, voted 11-1 on April 16 to reject the plan, and urged a rethinking of the proposal. Board members were unhappy that the west side of the Eighth Avenue -- officially part of the Clinton community, which lies just west of the Theatre District -- would be included under the zoning change. The body also expressed a desire that theatre owners who participate in the sale of air rights be made to pledge their buildings to theatre use for more than the suggested 25 years.
Manhattan Borough Board C. Virginia Fields may follow up the board's rejection of the proposal with a no vote of her own. Fields did not vote along with the board, but her spokesman, Michael DeMarzo, said that she would be issuing her own recommendation in the next three or four days. DeMarzo said that Fields' stance would most likely mirror that of the board.
"I think what really happened [at the board vote] was the borough president was able to pull the board into a consensus around the issue," said DeMarzo. "The idea was that the borough board wasn't rejecting the idea of transferring air rights , but wanted to see it done in a way that addressed the communities that would be affected. The resolution was an attempt to build a framework in which the proposal could be shaped."
DeMarzo said that Fields largely agreed with the vote. "In tone, that is where she stands on the issue," he said. Earlier this year, both Community Board 4, which represents Clinton, and Community Board 5, which speaks for the Theatre District, rejected it. If Fields, too, opposes it, her vote, along with those of the community boards and the borough board, would constitute what is known as a "triple no." Such opposition can only be overcome by a two-thirds "super-majority" of the City Council. Usually, a proposal requires only a majority vote for passage.
The plan now goes to the City Planning Commission for a vote next month. Planning Commissioner Joseph B. Rose reaction to the vote was vociferous. He branded the body "a forum that plays to the most reactionary and obstructionist elements of the Manhattan political spectrum." He allowed, however, that the plan might be revised before reaching the City Council in June.
The zoning proposal has been a source of conflict since it came to light in 1997. The idea was born of a study of the theatre industry commissioned by The Broadway Initiative, a coalition of theatrical labor and management forces. The New York City Planning Department's rezoning plan is a key tenet of the Initiative's plan to pump even more life into the Times Square theatre industry. Under the plan, theatre owners who benefit from the sale of air rights to Eighth Avenue developers would be required to deposit a percentage of that windfall into a Theatre Fund. That fund would then be used by the Initiative to maintain and inspect Broadway theatres and develop new plays and small musicals for the Great White Way.
The Broadway Theatre Institute, along with The Municipal Art Society and The Women's City Club, preceded the borough board vote with a forum on the zoning plan, held at New York City's Urban Center. Ryan said the event was attended by 125-140 people, and that talk was "spirited. The audience was dominated by people who are skeptical about the proposal." Jerald Kayden, a Harvard professor specializing in land use and development, moderated.