The New York City Council passed on Aug. 6 a proposal rezoning much of midtown Eighth Avenue from 42nd Street to 57th Street. The 32-6 vote will permit developers to build considerable higher structures along the thoroughfare through the purchase of air rights from Broadway theatre owners.
The passage was widely expected, but not achieved before several Council members on each side of the issue heatedly spoke out on the issue. The balcony of the Council chamber was filled with roughly 80 members of the Clinton community, which abuts Eighth Avenue and which has been vociferous in its opposition of the measure. Outbursts of applause and hissing had to be quelled repeatedly by the Council president.
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 will 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.
Prominent theatre professionals such as Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Betty Comden, Anthony LaPaglia, Eli Wallach, Tony Randall, James Naughton, Ron Silver, Jules Fisher and playwright Wendy Wasserstein have come out in support of the plan.
Also in favor of the measure are theatre personages less familiar to the public but no less powerful, including the big three theatre owning organizations -- the Shuberts, Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn; all of the theatrical unions; and the League of American Theatres and Producers.
-- By Robert Simonson