Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields has endorsed the city's Eighth Avenue Zoning Proposal, albeit with so many provisos that her support is not likely to greatly cheer the plan's supporters. Fields' stance, officially an approval of the controversial plan, includes such recommendations as the exemption of much of the west side of the street from the plan and the requirement that any air rights transfer require a special permit.
If adopted by the New York City Council, the proposal would greatly benefit owners of Broadway theatres, and thereby, it is argued, the entire NY theatre industry.
Still, Fields' was the most positive reaction the proposed rezoning has yet elicited. In recent weeks, the proposal has been strongly, and, in some cases, unanimously rejected, first by Community Boards 4 and 5 (which encompass Clinton and the Theatre District) and then the Manhattan Borough Board. Put forth as a cure for the ailing Broadway industry, the Department of Planning's proposal would allow theatre owners to sell the air rights to their landmarked 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.
Broadway interests have argued that the plan would be beneficial to the city's billion-dollar theatre industry and necessary for its continued health and survival. Community groups, meanwhile, characterize the plan as a land grab, which would aid the theatre little, enrich developers and theatre owners much, and potentially hurt the character of the surrounding community.
Fields seemed to give a nod to the forces opposing the plan. She recommended that the west side of Eighth Avenue -- the side that marks the beginning of the Clinton neighborhood -- be eliminated from any rezoning plan, with the exception of the blocks between 45th and 42nd streets, which border the west-of-Eighth Martin Beck Theatre. She also urged that any transfer of air rights be accomplished only by special permit, a process which would involve review and approval under the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. This mirrors a demand previously made by the Community Boards.
Fields additionally proposed that the chairs of Boards 4 and 5, as well as representatives of her office and local elected officials, be given a place on the Broadway Initiative's board. Also, under the present plan, theatre owners who sell development rights must pledge their building to legitimate use for 25 years. Fields asked that the time limit be extended to "the life of the related development."
While Clinton officials blasted Field's stand as a betrayal of the community, the Initiative saw in it a glimmer of hope for its plans. "Obviously, she felt an obligation to check one of the boxes marked do not recommend," said Ethan Geto, spokesman for the Broadway Initiative. "But, considering the reaction to the issues to date, we consider this a huge shot in the arm."
Asked how he felt about welcoming the heads of the Community Boards into the Initiative fold, Geto said he was "Not prepared to comment. We are very open in general to having a significant community presence on the board."
Geto said the Initiative is participating in ongoing discussions with the City Planning Commission and the City Council about possible alterations to the plan, and is hopeful about its eventual passage. Many officials on both sides of the issue, however, feel it is doubtful that the zoning plan will pass City Council in anything resembling its present form.
"We want the whole thing eliminated," said John Fisher, head of The Clinton Special District Coalition, "Because the crux of this issue is the transfer of air rights, which we think is inherently wrong." Many community leaders, including Fisher and officials from other boroughs, believe the Eighth Avenue plan would set a precedent which would open the door to the liberal transfer of air rights citywide.
The rezoning plan is due to go before City Council in June.
-- By Robert Simonson