Composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents, among many other powers of the Broadway industry, spoke at New York City Hall, May 6, making for a rather remarkable hearing of the New York City Planning Commission. The theatre luminaries were there to voice their support of a controversial and embattled plan to rezone the strip of Eighth Avenue that runs through the Theatre District.
The high profile backers gave a shot in the arm to a proposal that has been heatedly opposed by community groups and local politicians, and was recently rejected by the Manhattan Borough Board. Also present at the six and-one-half-hour meeting were representatives from the three big Broadway theatre owners: Rocco Landesman of Jujamcyn Theatres, Robert Nederlander of the Nederlander Organization, and Rebecca Robertson of the Shubert Organization. Producers Liz McCann, Daryl Roth, David Stone, and Ben Sprecher were also on hand, as were the heads of the actors, directors, musicians, ushers, and treasurers and ticket sellers' unions. The advocates asserted that the rezoning, in which theatre owners would be permitted to sell air rights to Eighth Avenue developers for a projected $50 a square foot, was vital to the continued health of the theatre.
Under the plan, theater owners who sell their air rights would be obliged to pledge their buildings to legitimate stage use for 25 years. In addition, they would be required to put $10 per square foot sold into a Theatre Fund, which would be administered by the Broadway Initiative, a coalition of theatre unions, owners, and producers. The Initiative would use the fund for the upkeep and inspection of Broadway theatres, as well as the development of new plays and small musicals. The rezoning is a key tenet to a many-faceted plan the Initiative has devised to ensure the commercial theatre industry's future.
Community leaders have questioned whether such an exchange is fair and if it would result in the kind of money to Initiative has projected. Indeed, two members of the Planning Commission, Amanda M. Burden and Brenda Levin, pressed the second question during the hearing.
The commission is made up of 13 members. The nayor appoints the chairman and six other members; each borough appoints one member; the Public Advocate appoints the final member. Ethan Geto, a spokesman for the Initiative said the City Planning Commission is expected to hand down a decision on the proposal by June 3. The plan would then proceed to the City Council. Sondheim and Laurents collaborated on West Side Story (with Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (with Jule Styne).