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Lortel Theater Stalls PATH Safety Project

Mon Sep 16, 5:55 PM ET

A controversial Port Authority plan to build additional exits for two West Village PATH stations is on hold for at least a year, community leaders say. The plan includes building an exit opposite the Lucille Lortel Theatre, an idea which the Lucille Lortel Foundation, owner and operator of the legendary venue, believes may jeopardize its viability. 

The Lortel is the only theatrical venue in the path of what project detractors call an ill-conceived expansion of the PATH system. Its proponents, however, call it a necessary evil: With each of those two PATH stations offering a single means of entrance and egress-and with ridership up sharply since the World Trade Center PATH station was destroyed after Sept. 11-there are fears that the stations loom as attractive terrorist targets.

As reported in the July 5 issue of Back Stage, Shawn Willett, program coordinator for the Lucille Lortel Foundation, characterized the organization as "distressed" over the plan, which includes digging a 74-foot trench on the corner of Christopher Street and Bedford Street. Another exit is slotted for a patch of land on Christopher Street, near Waverly Place.

"Our position is that while we understand the need for more safety and new exits, we don't think the Port Authority has explored all the options they could have," Willett said. The organization believes that any construction will make it "difficult" to make productions work, since theatre access will be limited and noise will inevitably be heard at different times of the day. "There won't be noise at night unless there's construction, but we're concerned about noise during matinees and during anytime there's a rehearsal at the theatre."

In addition, he says, "the exit creates another problem-it'll become a meeting place for people, so more noise. Another concern is that we'll be losing space to load in sets-the difficulty there is that many of the companies coming to the Lortel are nonprofit and can't afford the additional manpower necessary to get around that."

The PATH plan ignited a Stonewall-style firestorm among celebrities. Playwrights Edward Albee and Tony Kushner; "Hairspray" star Harvey Fierstein; comedienne Margaret Cho; choreographer Bill T. Jones; and writers Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, and Martin Duberman all signed a petition decrying the plan to "alter the character of the Stonewall Historic District."

The petition accused the Port Authority of operating without being "subject to any review under either historic preservation or environmental laws" and refusing "to consider realistic alternatives to the entrances." Yet because the Port Authority applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency ( news - web sites) (FEMA) to fund the $29.6 million project, it has been told by the agency to abide by its rules, including committing to an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) before the project can commence.

According to a letter sent by Councilwoman Christine Quinn to the Lortel Foundation-and obtained by Back Stage-the EIS would examine the construction's "possible effects on the environment, the historic district, businesses, and traffic," including "public input and involvement," thus enabling the Lortel Foundation to state its concerns. Quinn's letter also notes, "construction on the projects cannot be completed in the early to mid 2003 timeframe."

For now, Willett says the Lortel Foundation's "position is that we're still very concerned. After all, if the Port Authority can find a way to fund this without going through FEMA, they can just do so without an Environmental Impact Study. The Port Authority has a lot of power and a lot of clout and they can just turn around tomorrow and have a different story about how 'aware' they are of community opposition. For now, it sounds like they're concerned-let's just hope it stays that way."

-- Leonard Jacobs

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