The show must go on without theaters

By Lynne Miller | February 17, 2009 05:22PM

The down economy is forcing the curtain to fall on small and mid-sized performance theaters in New York, prompting an unusual effort by local community boards to help troubled venues stay open.

Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 are hosting a public forum tonight to discuss the economic challenges facing theaters and potential strategies to help them survive.

In New York, independent theaters have been struggling for years, and their existence is threatened further by the poor economy as well as the cost of real estate. Nearly 30 percent of performance venues in Midtown have been shut down in the last three years, according to the five community boards, which cover several Midtown and Lower Manhattan neighborhoods. The 29th Street, Douglas Fairbanks, New Perspectives and Vital Children’s theaters are among several defunct Off-Off-Broadway performance spaces listed in a new report by the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for Off-Off-Broadway theater. In the West Village, the report says, about 25 percent of such theaters have closed their doors in the last five years.

It’s difficult for theaters operating on shoestring budgets to afford Manhattan real estate. Old theaters attract tenants with deeper pockets, like colleges and universities, said Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of the retail leasing, marketing and sales division at Prudential Douglas Elliman. Theaters also can be renovated for retail and mixed-use developments, all of which generate higher rents for landlords.

“I think theaters are a nice addition to the landscape but today it’s all about real estate, profits and function,” she said. “Especially now in this challenging environment, those types of locations just are not viable. Theaters are ideal development sites.”

Nevertheless, some landlords remain open to leasing space to arts groups.

“There are landlords who understand the value of having an arts space and will make certain concessions for them,” said David Diamond, chairman of the theater task force of Manhattan Community Board 5.

While he would welcome a viable theater or dance studio as a new tenant for his building in the Garment District, Philippe Ifrah, a partner with I.G.S. Realty, hasn’t seen interest from those types of tenants. A handful of companies including Internet-based and telecommunications firms have taken a look at his vacant space in the Arts Building at 336 West 37th Street, home to the shuttered Zipper Theater, since it went on the market.

The Zipper Theater, known for hosting edgy plays and eclectic music and comedy acts, went dark January 13 after operating for more than seven years in the Arts Building. The theater occupied 8,500 square feet on the ground floor and mezzanine level, and an adjoining restaurant, run by the Zipper’s operator Lee Z. Davis, took up an additional 7,000 square feet. The spaces could be leased together or divided up, said Ifrah, whose company purchased the 15-story former zipper factory in the Garment District in 1985 and then renovated it.

“We’re absolutely negotiable,” Ifrah said.