In an amplified replay of a May 6 hearing of the New York City Planning Commission, some towering figures of the American theatre are expected to speak at the July 14 City Council Zoning Subcommittee hearing in support of the controversial plan to rezone a strip of Eighth Avenue that runs through the Theatre District.
Repeating their May 6 service to the Broadway Initiative Working Group, which supports the rezoning, composer Stephen Sondheim and lyricist and playwright Arthur Laurents gave testimony at today's City Hall hearing. Also due to appear were lyricist Betty Comden; the Tony-winning star of A View From the Bridge Anthony LaPaglia; actors Eli Wallach, Tony Randall, James Naughton, Ron Silver; lighting designer Jules Fisher; and playwright Wendy Wasserstein.
Backing them up were theatre personages less familiar to the public but no less powerful, including representatives of the big three theatre owning organizations -- the Shuberts, Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn; all of the theatrical unions; and the League of American Theatres and Producers. In all, more than 100 theatre artists and officials are expected to speak in support of the plans. However, if previous hearings on this issue are any example, the hearing will feature as many citizens and city politicians from the Clinton and Theatre District areas who are fiercely opposed to the proposal.
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. Those complaints resulted in the June passage, by the New York City Planning Commission, of a revised version of the measure. 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. Also, 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 proposal is expected to go before the City Council in August. -- By Robert Simonson