The New York Film Academy has left Tammany Hall and another tenant, the Union Square Theater, will soon follow suit as the landmarked building that was once home to a corrupt Democratic party machine expands for retail development.
The NYFA yesterday relocated the last of its employees from Union Square down to Battery Park. “We were there 23 years but time marches on and these real estate people have their own agenda, and they’re spending millions now that this area is becoming more gentrified,” said Jerry Sherlock, the Academy’s founder and director emeritus. Sherlock said the owners of the building, Liberty Theaters, LLC, told him they were developing the property and offered a month-to-month lease. “They refused to sign a lease and you can’t run a school that way,” he said.
Liberty, based in the East Village, owns the 499-seat Union Square Theater, which remains at Tammany Hall on 100 East 17th Street, producing the twice Tony nominated hit comedy, 39 Steps. But the theater is destined for demolition in plans proposed by BKSK Architects. Last year the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the addition of a glass dome atop the neo-Georgian colonial, which would expand space for new commercial tenants. The Commission previously rejected a larger turtle-shaped design for the dome.
Union Square Theater has not been successful for its owners, said Jeffrey Mulligan, a planning and housing specialist who last night addressed Community Board 5’s land use, housing and zoning committee on behalf of Liberty. “There is no orchestra pit and the stage is very small. The lobby is very small,” he added, noting that audiences spill out onto the sidewalk on East 17th Street during intermissions and after shows.
The committee passed a resolution approving Liberty’s application for a variance to restore, reuse and enlarge the property in a neighborhood that is zoned for both residential and commercial.
“The theater didn’t work–we even tried putting it in the basement,” said Margaret Cotter, president of Liberty, in a brief interview with B+B after the meeting. Cotter, a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney, acknowledged that the renovation, expected to cost millions, could begin before the end of this year once her company clears other government hurdles, such as the full community board, which must approve the committee’s resolution, and the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals.
Asked how many tenants she expected would come to the building, Cotter said, “There could be only one. This is a retail development.” Her partner in the venture, Michael Buckley, a managing principal of Edifice Real Estate on Eighth Avenue, declined to comment.
The New York Film Academy, a private film and acting school which Sherlock says has 1,000 students in New York, began moving employees from Tammany Hall to its “much superior space” at 568 Broadway several months ago.
“We’re in a brand new neighborhood facing the water and we’re reinventing ourselves,” Sherlock, an executive producer of The Hunt for Red October, said of the location where the school has been operating since 2013. The academy was originally located at Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Center.
Earlier this week, employees were still answering phones inside the Tammany Hall building, working in front of walls splashed with vividly painted Soviet war-time images. The property also includes four commercial tenants, all facing Park Avenue South.
According to the New York Times, Cotter purchased Tammany Hall in 2001 from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. Her company is a subsidiary of Reading International, a Los Angeles based conglomerate that owns theaters and playhouses nationwide. Reading’s website notes that Cotter’s Liberty Theaters owns and manages off-Broadway theaters Minetta Lane and The Orpheum (home of Stomp!)on Second Avenue and St. Marks Place.
Tammany Hall won landmark status in 2013. Jack Taylor, a member of the Union Square Community Coalition, which fought for the designation, said the property was built in 1929 and designed to emulate City Hall, then located on Wall Street. He noted that its federal colonial architectural design was meant to “give it some respectability at the height of the Tammany Club scandals.”