Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why The Palace Theater Should NOT Be Moved

Just when you think you can breath a sigh of relief about the future of Broadway's historic theaters--and, for that matter, rejoice in the futures of one about to rejoin the theater community, while another gets a non-profit company for a full-time tenant and a restoration to boot--the ingenuity of New York real estate developers strikes again.

Ever heard of an entire theater building effectively put on an elevator, jacked up off the ground, and having retail space inserted underneath it, while its entrance is moved around the corner to a side street for the benefit of access to said retail space?  Probably not before, but now you have. Yes, the Palace Theater, the legendary home of vaudeville, Judy Garland concerts and Broadway musicals, is essentially going to be uprooted from its historic site and pushed up 29 feet into the air, so that retail space can be inserted underneath it.  Moreover, what was left of its historic entrance (which was not much) will be gone forever.  Instead, the entrance will be pushed around the corner to 47th Street.

Why?  Dollars, dollars, dollars.  The value of the land underneath the Palace is now worth more as retail space than it is as theater space.  The theater itself is landmarked, so it can't be destroyed (and, allegedly, will be "restored" as part of this crazy scheme).  But it apparently can be pushed up into the air; the NYC Landmarks Commission has signed off on this.  It won't actually go forward until the Palace's current tenant, "An American In Paris," ends its current run, which may take a few years. But, other than that, it's a done deal.

We are, of course, reliably assured that all of this is technically feasible, and that the landmarked theater stage house and auditorium won't be harmed in any way.  After all, something similar was done with the former Empire Theater on 42nd Street, when it was put on rollers and moved down the block to accommodate a larger development on its former site.  The Empire survived its trip; why should we fear for the future of the Palace?

Well, for one thing, the Empire didn't (to borrow a line from "Wicked") defy gravity, as the Palace is expected to do now.  If something goes wrong, what happens to "100 years of vaudeville history"? Who will pick up the pieces? For that matter, will the pieces be picked up?  Will it even be possible to even repair or remove any damage safely and economically, given the fact that, as of several decades ago, the theater was essentially encased inside a newer, modern hotel?

It seems like an awful lot of risk, expense and stress to go through simply to create more retail space in a city that is already filled with "For Rent" signs on existing retail spaces.  New York generally is in a period where a handful of superwealthy people are able to jack up the price of everything, but not successfully occupy all of it because there simply aren't enough of them to do so. That's why so much of what does get sold or leased goes to overseas owners or tenants.  As a result, no one else can afford to live in New York, because all of the developers and landlords are trying to strike it rich with a shrinking pool of Midases.

Beyond that, there's the question of history.  As I've said before, historic theaters are historic not just because of their architecture, but also because cultural history was made on those sites. Change the site, and you damage the integrity of the historic location, at the very least.  I would argue that you obliterate it altogether.

It appears too late to stop this sacrilege.  All we can do is hope and pray that no other Broadway landlord is looking for "basement rights."

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