The Eighth Avenue Zoning Proposal entered a new phase on June 3, when the New York City Planning Commission approved a revised version of the measure by a vote of 10-2 with one abstention. Supporters of the plan hope the alterations -- which include a provision discouraging the construction of large buildings on the west side of Eighth Avenue -- will help the chances for passage of a proposal which has so far weathered an opposition from some of the residents in the neighborhood abutting the Broadway theatre district.
Put forth as a needed boost for the Broadway theatre industry, the Department of Planning's proposal would allow theatre owners to sell the "air rights" to their landmarked low-rise buildings to developers who wished to build along Eighth Avenue between 40th and 57th streets in excess of current zoning laws. A portion of the money theatre owners would cull from such a windfall, meanwhile, would be deposited into a Theatre Fund, intended for the upkeep of landmark theatres and the development of new plays and used by the Broadway Initiative Working Group -- a coalition of theatrical management and union groups. Additionally, theatres who sell development rights would have to commit their properties to theatrical use for a period of 25 years.
While backers of the plan argue that its passage is crucial to the survival the Broadway theatre, one of the city's most vital industries, opponents have expressed worries about the effect, both economic and environmental, such development would have on the surrounding neighborhood. In recent weeks, parties as disparate as Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and the Actors' Equity union have suggested that the west side of Eighth Avenue -- officially a part of the Clinton community -- be eliminated from the zoning proposal.
The Planning Commission seems to have heard those calls. A new provision in the plan has removed a set of regulations which could encourage the construction of large office buildings on the avenue's west side, therefore increasing the likelihood that any development would be residential. Furthermore, another clause which said that where Midtown and Clinton regulations overlapped, the former would prevail, has been dropped; under the new plan, the more restrictive regulations would be held up. Finally, Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro submitted a letter that, the Department of Planning's Richard Barth said, "restated [the city's] commitment to affordable housing in Clinton."
"We were particularly pleased with the changes about the commitment for inclusive housing in Clinton," said Anne Zimmerman, coordinator of the Broadway Initiative. "We wanted the concerns of Clinton to be addressed." She added that she considered the zoning plan "important not only for the future of the Broadway Initiative, but for the preservation of the theatres for legitimate theatre use." She emphasized that she thought the securing of the theatres' futures the most important aspect of the proposal by far.Another significant change involved certification of development transfers. Where before applications would be sent to City Planning Commission Chairman Joseph B. Rose for approval, they would now be presented to the entire planning commission and referred to Community Boards 4 and 5, the borough president, and the local city council member. Another change would switch the review and possible adjustment of Theatre Fund contributions from being an optional duty performed by the chairman to a mandatory practice exercised by the commission. Other changes in the proposal helped ensure that participating Broadway theatres remain committed to stage use. A provision which allowed for a temporary interim change of use during the 25-year period has been revoked. Also, another provision permitting theatres to apply for a modification of use after the 25 years has also been eliminated.
"The provisions that would keep these theatres theatres into perpetuity were strengthened," observed Ethan Geto, a spokesman for The Broadway Initiative. "The Broadway Initiative is extremely pleased on the vote. We look forward to discussing the proposal with the City Council."
"I think that they did a lot of wise and good things there," said Rebecca Robertson of the Shubert Organization, the largest owner of Broadway theatres. "There was a lot of community concern about the plan. I think the commission did a lot of the things the preservationist groups asked for."
Richard Barth thought the changes answered many of the complaints which had been directed against the proposal. "Certainly these changes strengthen the proposal," he said. "[The commission] has responded to the issues raised." Both Geto and Robertson expressed guarded hopes that the alterations would improve the measure's chances with the City Council and impress the plans detractors.
"All of these changes are acceptable to the theatre community, and we think will strengthen the plan's possibility for passage," said Geto. "Clearly some of these provisions are among the things that the people in Clinton had sought."
"I think that the fact that the theatre community has been so supportive of the proposal in general is important," added Robertson. "I think [the changes] go a long way towards the concerns Equity voiced. I think there is such a strong support for theatre in this city, and that will weigh with the council. The introduction of a commitment to low income housing will go a long way."
The proposal is expected to go before the City Council in August. -- By Robert Simonson