Volume 19 Issue 49 | April 20 - 26, 2007

City speeds up W.T.C. arts under Port pressure

By Skye H. McFarlane

As the chair of Community Board 1’s World Trade Center Committee, Catherine McVay Hughes has spent many a Monday night leaning into a microphone to ask rebuilding officials what is going on with the Performing Arts Center planned for the World Trade Center site. To date, she has gotten few answers.

Last Monday afternoon, Hughes leaned into a different microphone, to testify at a City Council hearing about the PAC’s progress. This time, Hughes and other supporters of the Downtown arts scene were deluged — and at times disturbed — by details of the city’s new plan to shrink the PAC and reduce its cost. Though the PAC advocates expressed excitement that the city is finally moving forward, they voiced continuing concerns about the openness of the planning process. They also scolded rebuilding officials for delaying both the fundraising and the construction of the PAC in order to prioritize other projects.

While the city can put off construction and fundraising, it can no longer afford to delay the redesign of the PAC building. Port Authority officials revealed Monday that if the city wants to coordinate the PAC’s construction with the Port’s projects on the site, it must produce a final structural design as soon as possible, ideally eight weeks. If the city fails, the PAC project would likely suffer more delays and cost increases.

“This is unbelievable, after all this time, that they’ve finally given themselves an eight-week deadline. It’s great,” Hughes said. “However, there was a master plan that people agreed to and it’s unfair that the costs have been allowed to compromise that plan and make the Performing Arts Center the last priority.”

Two weeks ago, city officials revealed that the Signature Theater Company and the two small theater spaces it was destined to occupy would no longer be a part of the planned PAC building on Greenwich St. between Vesey and Fulton Sts. The move would leave just one 1000-seat theater, which would host the Joyce dance theater, along with periodic use by the Tribeca Film Festival, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and visiting dance companies.

The city and the City University of New York are working to find another space for the Signature, possibly at CUNY’s rebuilt Fiterman Hall, just north of the W.T.C. site. Nevertheless, the move would bring the number of cultural institutions on the W.T.C. site itself, once set at four, down to one. The Drawing Center and the International Freedom Center were dropped from the cultural plan in 2005 after a group of 9/11 family members objected to the museums’ content.

On Monday, officials from the city, the state and the Port Authority filled in some of the details of the truncated PAC plan. According to the officials, the eight-week design deadline will only be the first segment in a lengthy game of “hurry up and wait.” The designs are necessary so that the Port Authority can construct a dual foundation for both the PAC and a planned vehicle screening center. If the city misses the Port’s window, it will have to go back in and build a second foundation at a later date.

“I don’t think eight weeks is really the deadline,” Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, who coordinates the city’s rebuilding efforts, told Downtown Express Wednesday. He said the city will be able to give the Port the necessary information about the PAC soon after the self-imposed cutoff.

But even though the PAC’s foundations could go in as early as 2008 under the Port plan, the PAC building itself cannot begin construction until at least 2011.

Part of the original PAC site will be used for a second entrance to the Port Authority’s vehicle screening and parking facility. It will also house a temporary entrance to the W.T.C. PATH station and provide a construction staging space for the permanent Calatrava transportation hub. In addition, developer Larry Silverstein said at the hearing that the site will be used as a staging area for work on the Freedom Tower.

Though both Silverstein and Steven Plate of the Port Authority said that using the PAC site for other projects is unavoidable, PAC supporters called the news sad and unfair. Councilmember Alan Gerson, who chaired the hearing, said he would continue to press the Port to relocate its staging areas so as to speed up the PAC timeline. Hughes had another suggestion. If the staging uses could not be avoided, she said, then Silverstein and the Port should pay to rent the space. The money could go into a fund for the construction of the arts center.

“The Performing Arts Center is really being victimized here,” Hughes said, pointing out that construction costs rise substantially every year. “While [Silverstein and the Port] use the site for free, the cost of the PAC continues to go up because of the delay.”

The other delay facing the PAC is an indefinite postponement of the project’s fundraising campaign. Although the PAC is now under the joint purview of the city, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, it was originally controlled by the Memorial Foundation. Because the foundation’s primary goal is to fund the memorial, the group decided to put cultural center fundraising on hold until the memorial is fully financed.

On Monday, Kate Levin, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, revealed that the city would continue the foundation’s no fundraising policy, though for different reasons.

“Practically speaking, real fundraising can’t start until we have a physical conception of the site,” Levin said.

Levin insisted that the city would need to know the exact cost and design of the building before it could go after donors. Under the original two-tenant plan, cost estimates for the center had risen to $700 million. Levin said that she hoped the new plan would bring the price tag back under $500 million, but she did not have an exact target in mind. A rebuilding official said a few weeks ago that the smaller PAC would cost about $350 million, which would mean the city is shooting for a $150 million Signature Theater space, based on Levin’s remark.

To date, there is only $55 million in L.M.D.C. funds allocated to build the PAC.

For that reason, Hughes, fellow C.B. 1 member Michael Connolly, and representatives from the arts and dance communities all called upon the city to begin fundraising immediately. Fundraising, they said, would demonstrate the city’s confidence in the oft-stalled project.

James Houghton, the executive director of Signature, also pleaded for the city and the Council to express their confidence in the PAC and keep the project in the news. Houghton said that Signature is prepared to “commit all [its] resources” to a private fundraising campaign but that donors are hesitant to give to a project whose future has seemed so uncertain for so long.

The Signature’s fundraising needs are now more acute than ever. If the theater were to move to Fiterman Hall, construction would begin two years before the Joyce’s theater, in 2009. Linda Shelton of the Joyce Theater, though less outspoken, also expressed a desire for the project’s progress to continue.

“In 2004, when they announced our space in the center, we began our fundraising campaign immediately,” Houghton said. “But that fundraising came to a halt once faith was lost in the project…hopefully now it will begin to gather momentum again.”

In a telephone interview, Doctoroff offered Houghton a mixed blessing. He gave Signature a vote of confidence, saying that the city is, “very committed for them to have a home Downtown.”

However, Doctoroff balked at the idea of fundraising for either theater group just yet, even if it is done privately by the theaters themselves. Doctoroff said private fundraising would have to be carefully coordinated, otherwise the efforts could “send overlapped and mixed messages to the donor community.” He doesn’t want the theaters to contact donors who are likely to give money for the memorial.

Despite lingering concerns over the city’s new plan, all of the participants in Monday’s hearing agreed that the meeting marked a step forward in bringing culture to the W.T.C. site. PAC advocates said that they hoped the government agencies would continue to involve the public both during and after the intensive eight-week planning process.

“We are all here with the same purpose — to ensure that culture has an integral part in rebuilding the World Trade Center site,” said Gerson. “Now, thankfully, the discussion is not about whether to proceed with a cultural center, but how to proceed with a cultural center and how to expedite its creation.”

With reporting by Josh Rogers

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