Shawn Willett, the program coordinator for the Lucille Lortel Foundation, is as distressed as many West Villagers over a plan to dig a 74-foot trench along Christopher Street in order to install additional exits for the PATH stations in the area. For the station just east of Sixth Avenue at 9th Street,
the new exit would be created on Christopher Street, near Waverly Place. For the station found just west of Hudson Street at Christopher, the new exit would be excavated directly in front of the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
The Lortel is the only theatrical venue in the path of what the project's
detractors call an ill-conceived expansion of the PATH system. Its proponents call it a necessary evil: With each PATH station offering a single means of entrance and egress-and with ridership up sharply since the World Trade Center PATH station was rendered inoperable after Sept. 11-there are fears that they loom as attractive terrorist targets.
The Port Authority of the State of New York and New Jersey, which operates the PATH system, has jurisdiction over the project and, under the terms of its charter, is exempt from many of the laws under which such construction projects would normally be subject. Which is the reason that Willett especially fears for the future of the Lortel.
"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." He adds that not only does Governor Pataki have the power to rejigger the plan, but he'd do well to do so, given that 2002 is an election year.
Across Greenwich Village, meanwhile, the PATH plan has ignited a
Stonewall-style firestorm. A growing list of celebrities, including playwrights Edward Albee and Tony Kushner, playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein,
comedienne Margaret Cho, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and writers
Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, and Martin Duberman-have signed a petition railing against a plan that would forever "alter the character of the Stonewall Historic District."
In one section of the letter, the petitioners decry the fact that a "Port Authority representative hasÖasked for and been granted an exemption from federal environmental reviewÖ[and is] not subject to any review under either
historic preservation or environmental laws" and that "the Port Authority hasÖ.refused to consider realistic alternatives to the entrances."
Another concern is the preliminary construction work already completed on Gay Street, which wraps along both Christopher Street and Waverly Place, doing minor damage to the historical townhouses on the block. According to
Willett, when neighborhood residents asked to see construction permits, none were forthcoming.
The Lortel: Potential Loser
Back at the theatre, Willett says, "There are essentially two issues. One is the actual construction project itself, which will put a huge trench down Christopher Street while they're drilling down to bedrock, keeping the street closed to traffic. The Port Authority says the idea is that they will not close
Christopher St for long stretches, but that it will be closed for days at a time. The second issue is the large crane they're going to place in front of the theatre."
The effect, he says, will potentially devastate the venue, not to mention the general community, which was declared an economic disaster area in the wake of Sept. 11 and has yet to recover. If the construction begins in mid-July, as currently scheduled, the first victim, Willett says, will be the
Lortel's next tenant: the TheatreWorks/USA production of "Sarah, Plain and Tall."
A musical based on Patricia MacLachlan's Newbery Award-winning novel, the production is a TheatreWorks/USA tradition in which free tickets are offered to thousands of New York City youngsters each summer. The story,
exploring "the importance of family, the pain of loss, and the process of healing," would seem most appropriate, given what the city has endured over the last year.
But the construction will make it deeply difficult to make the production work. Access to the theatre will often be limited, and the construction noise will inevitably be heard at many, if not all, performances. There are also safety issues, which Willett says the Port Authority has yet to address.
"Since there would be a 74-foot trench, will there be any kind of retaining wall around so children don't fall in? Seventy-five percent of the tickets go to at-risk students-any construction is going to hurt students and the
And then, Willett says, "They will have to remove two parking spaces-but those aren't parking spaces, that's a widening of the street that allows other cars to pass, so now there will be more congestion that ever. And 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." And if that should ultimately lead to fewer bookings, he says, the Lortel could perhaps be dark indefinitely.
Advocating for Alternatives
While Willett has been attending community board meetings and working with neighborhood activists to stymie the project, Ben Green, a neighborhood activist, serves as co-chair of the Christopher Street Preservation Alliance, an organization pursuing various legal and political avenues in order to stop things in their tracks. The idea, he says, is to persuade the Port Authority to consider alternatives to its plan.
He has some hope. While the Port Authority has applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency ( news - web sites) (FEMA) for reimbursement for the project-"they're trying to connect the dots" between safety concerns and Sept. 11, he says-the agency "is requiring them to perform a National Historic Preservation Act review" as well as other
studies that, he believes, will reveal the extent of the damage the construction will cause. That, he says, will force the Port Authority to finally consider alternatives to the plan as it stands.
He adds that the situation is complicated by the fact that "the Port Authority seems very reluctant to make public statements about this matter," and indeed, the Port Authority did not return calls from Back Stage by press time."We've been asking for a National Environmental Policy Review, and at every turn the Port Authority has refused. It seems both regrettable and somewhat suspicious because at the heart of that review would be an alternatives analysis that would evaluate the project's impact in different
categories-business, residential property values, overall growth, neighborhood transportation, and historic preservation among them. The idea is that one chooses the site with the least negative impact across the greatest number of categories studied."
The goal of the alliance, he says, "has been for the Port Authority to explore providing temporary means of egress from the existing platform"-such as the pneumatic, hydraulic lifts" found on West 66th Street near Lincoln Center. "As far as we're concerned, a lot is being done under the political fig leaf of 'safety' that just shouldn't be done."
-- Leonard Jacobs