Volume 79, Number 30 | December 30 - January 5, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

A 1935 photo of the Loew’s Canal Theater, flanked by a Yiddish store sign and a Chinese restaurant sign.

Theater could have second act as performance center

By Julie Shapiro

The long-shuttered Loew’s Canal Theater in Chinatown could get a new life as a performing arts center.

The proposal to fix up and reopen the 83-year-old theater is far from a done deal, but the space’s owner agreed last week to do a feasibility study.

“It would be the first theater opening in Chinatown in over a generation, probably several generations,” City Councilmember Alan Gerson said. “It’ll bolster the arts and culture of Chinatown and it will also bolster the economy.”

Gerson began fighting for a performing arts center for Chinatown after 9/11. Amid many disagreements over the future of the neighborhood and how revitalization money should be spent, a cultural center was one of the few ideas that garnered no opposition, recalled Amy Chin, president of the nonprofit leading the project’s planning.

“There’s no central gathering space, no place indoors for large-scale community events,” Chin said. “Virtually all cultural groups [in Chinatown] are operating out of spaces that are just decrepit.”

Progress on the performing arts center has been slow over the past eight years, in large part because it is difficult to find a large, available space in Chinatown. With the nonprofit CREATE in Chinatown (Committee to Revitalize and Enrich the Arts and Tomorrow’s Economy), Chin has looked into dozens of possibilities.

But no space is quite like the Loew’s Canal, at 31 Canal St. near Ludlow St. Designed by renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb, the 2,339-seat theater opened in 1926. Many of the original, ornate, terra-cotta details remain, although the seats were cleared out long ago when the theater was turned into a warehouse.

For about the last 25 years, the theater has been owned by Thomas Sung, founder of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown. CREATE started talking to Sung about the space three years ago and even sent Rogers Marvel Architects in to examine it.

But Sung initially had other ideas, hoping to rent the theater to a commercial tenant and build condos above. He filed plans to that effect with the city Department of Buildings during the summer, though they have not yet been approved, possibly because the city is looking to landmark the building.

But then, this week, Sung and CREATE released a joint statement saying they are committed to rebuilding the theater. In an interview Tuesday, Sung said a theater would be good for the community, especially because it would offer a central place to experience Chinese culture.

Sung said he is willing to give up the rent he could make from the ground-floor theater space, but only if he is able to use the building’s air rights to build 12 or 13 stories of condos on top. It is unclear how feasible it would be to build the condos, because they would have to be supported by the theater below, which is an open space with no columns. Sung is consulting with an engineer.

“We are very much dedicated to seeing this happen,” Sung said, “but there are always financial constraints and physical constraints.” On the chances of the theater being built, he said, “I hate to speculate.”

CREATE has received $150,000 for the performance center from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and is slated to get an additional $140,000 for the next phase of planning.

In case the Loew’s Canal space does not come through, Chin is still looking at other possibilities. One is 70 Mulberry St., a city-owned building that houses the Chinatown Manpower Project, the Chen Dance Center and, formerly, the Museum of Chinese in America. Even if the building could not house a 500-seat theater, renovations and the addition of an elevator could still make it a place for the Chinatown community to gather, Chin said.

But Chin said no other space comes close to the grandeur and historical significance of the Loew’s Canal Theater. It was once one of many theaters on the east side of Lower Manhattan, before Broadway and 42nd St. became the city’s theater district. Most of those old theaters have since been demolished, to make way for Confucius Plaza and other buildings, Chin said.

“This is a cultural treasure in our community,” Chin said. “There’s a long history there. It would just be astounding if it was restored.”

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