Volume 79, Number 14 | September 9 - 15, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Isaac Rosenthal

Photo shows the remnants of MacDougal St.’s Provincetown Playhouse, in background, but with a large section removed from its northern wall. As can be seen from the photo, the rest of the site is being prepared — with a new foundation — for construction of a new building for N.Y.U. School of Law.

Task force and Stringer hit the roof over playhouse wall

By Albert Amateau

The hole in the wall of the Provincetown Playhouse got bigger last week. And the resentment felt by preservation advocates and members of the Manhattan Borough President’s Task Force on New York University Development also got bigger.

The task force met with Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for community engagement, on Thursday afternoon Sept. 3 and toured the site at 133-139 MacDougal St., where the university had promised to maintain the walls and stage area of the 1916 theater renowned for the early productions of plays by the modern American master and Nobel Laureate Eugene O’Neill.

Hurley, who earlier last month had acknowledged responsibility for failing to warn the task force about the need to demolish part of the theater, presided over a task force meeting at which the members did not hesitate to fault N.Y.U. and bring up the earlier conflicts between the school and its Village neighbors.

“N.Y.U should never have made a promise to preserve the theater walls if they didn’t know that they could keep it,” Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and a member of the task force, said later.

“If this were an isolated instance, it would be one thing,” Berman said. “But the same thing happened at the Poe House [in 2002] and the Palladium [in 1995]. It’s consistently apparent that N.Y.U. cannot keep its word.”

David Gruber, chairperson of the Institutions Committee of Community Board 2 and a task force member, also took N.Y.U. to task.

“If they could move the Temple of Dendur from Egypt to the Metropolitan Museum, I don’t see why N.Y.U. couldn’t preserve four walls of a 90-year-old theater in a project across the street from its law school,” Gruber said. He wanted the task force to be more vigilant about N.Y.U. development in general, especially in the university’s plans for the N.Y.U. Center for Academic and Spiritual Life on Washington Square South on the site formerly occupied by the N.Y.U. Catholic Center and acquired by the university from the Catholic Archdiocese of New York last year.

Shaan Khan, of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s staff, said on Tuesday that the task force was meeting this week to review both the Provincetown Playhouse and the N.Y.U. Spiritual Life Center.

The task force has made several design suggestion for changes to the proposed Spiritual Center, and N.Y.U. is scheduled to show the task force and Community Board 2 its response to those suggestions at the end of this month, Khan said.

Regarding the Provincetown Playhouse, Stringer told The Villager on Tuesday that he was focusing on the issue with “laser-beam” intensity.

“I expect N.Y.U. to live up to every promise it made,” he said. “I have enormous respect for [N.Y.U.] President John Sexton and for the community leaders who fought N.Y.U. for years. But when N.Y.U. makes a mistake, my role is to protect the interests of the community.”

Stringer said he was upset not only that N.Y.U. failed to let the task force and C.B. 2 know about the breach in the Provincetown Playhouse wall for about three weeks, but that the trust between N.Y.U. and the Village community that the task force has developed over the past three years was compromised.

“The mistake was made and N.Y.U. will have to work hard to regain the community’s goodwill,” Stringer said.

Jo Hamilton, chairperson of Board 2 and a member of the task force, who was out of town on Sept. 3 when the task force met, recalled on Tuesday that C.B. 2 passed a resolution earlier this year approving the N.Y.U. plan for a new building for its law school at 133-139 MacDougal St. on the promise that the interior walls of the historic theater would be preserved.

“The fact that the wall was partly demolished was a big failure,” Hamilton said. “We need to be more careful and demand more assurances about future projects.”


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