Will It Be Curtains for Planned Theater in FiDi? Local Opponents Hope So

Accompanied by fellow opponents at CB1's Licensing Committee this month, Alejandra Cata speaks out against a liquor license for Emursive's planned theater project. Cata organized Keep FiDi Safe, a group fighting the license. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 24, 2020

Against a headwind of opposition, owners of a popular Chelsea entertainment venue are looking to repeat their success in the heart of the Financial District. 

At a theater on West 27th Street called the McKittrick Hotel, audiences of the production “Sleep No More” freely roam about the five floors as they look in on live, noir-like scenes inspired by “Macbeth.” A similar three-hour “immersive” experience is planned for seven levels and 100,000 square feet at 20 Exchange Place/18 William Street, the former City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, a 57-story Art Deco tower with nearly 800 apartments. Last week the principals of Emursive, the company behind the project, came before Community Board 1’s Licensing Committee seeking advisory approval of a liquor license.

Residents of 20 Exchange Place and nearby buildings packed the conference room in the Manhattan Borough President’s office where Emursive owners Jonathan Hochwald, Arthur Karpati and Randy Weiner hoped to convince the committee that their new venture, as Hochwald put it, “will raise the cultural profile of the neighborhood, and the city even higher.” The space would include a “grand café,” open to the public before the show, he said.

“Rather than another chain discount store or chain drug store or chain bank branch we are creating something with soul that New Yorkers will love,” Hochwald said of the long vacant spaces, five floors of which are below street level. “It will not be an alcohol-fueled night club or adult venue or concert hall.”

But it will bring more people and traffic than the narrow streets and sidewalks can bear, nearby residents insisted. Audrey Greene of 3 Hanover Square said she has attended “Sleep No More” in Chelsea more than 30 times since it opened nine years ago. She called it “one of my favorite experiences ever.” But she said 20 Exchange Place, a block from her home, is different.

“I love your show,” she told the owners. “But I could not imagine a worse place, a worse idea than right in that location. I can’t imagine anything less welcome.”  

The Emursive owners first introduced their plan to the committee last March, which galvanized the president of 3 Hanover Square, Alejandra Cata, to launch an opposition group, Keep FiDi Safe. In the meantime, the owners have worked to dampen the backlash, meeting with residents and circulating a petition that has garnered some 400 signatures of support. 

Separate negotiations with the board of managers of 15 Exchange Place led to their approval in return for an agreement to limit the maximum audience size from 3,500 to 500, with staggered admission over the course of an hour. The owners also agreed to stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. “We’ve trimmed down the application as much as possible,” said Alexander Victor, Emursive’s lawyer.

At this month’s committee meeting, Emursive’s transportation consultant, Don Tone of Sam Schwartz Engineering, acknowledged that congestion in the area can be a problem. “So what we have to do to be successful is to pull every lever to get people out of their cars and using mass transit, whether bus or subway.”

“You scare people,” Tone added. “You tell them you’re spending a lot of money to go to the show. Don’t jeopardize missing the show. Take public transit.” In addition, he said, there would be up to four traffic management “liaisons.” A possible “incentive program” for patrons to be picked up on Water Street also was suggesed.

But committee members and many residents in the room said the policy would fail. “Incentivizing your clientele to not take Uber is not going to work,” said committee member Marc Ameruso. “It’s not what happens in the real world.”

“If you have even 10 people at Exchange and William calling for Ubers or waiting for Lyft, I don’t see how it’s possible,” agreed Greg Brennan, president of the board of managers of 55 Wall Street.

The committee voted to recommend against the license, citing both street congestion and concerns over emergency vehicles stuck in traffic. (Traffic consultant Tone said the theater’s impact on the speed of emergency response was outside the scope of his study.) On Tuesday at the full board meet, with some two dozen residents on hand to speak against license, CB1 all but unanimously ratified the rejecton. (There was one abstention.)

“I think the traffic pattern is abominable. That and emergencies, coupled together, are big deals,” said committee chair Susan Cole. The committee's resolution will be voted on by the full board on Tuesday evening.

But Cole also warned that it was "a gamble" for the Community Board to deny a license, which gives the community leverage in negotiating restrictions on the operation. Without the restrictions that would accompany a liquor license, the owners have indicated a “worst case scenario” of as many as 3,500 people in the space, with a wider variety of entertainment, lower ticket prices and 4 a.m. closings. Asked after the meeting if he anticipated that would happen, Hochwald said it is too soon to know. “Given the infrastructure issues, [the opponents] don’t want anything in there,” he said. “Now we have to go back and figure out how to address that.

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