Volume 78 - Number 28 / December 10 - 16, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

‘Plants on a hot tin roof’; Theater plans to go green

By Casey Samulski

The Theater for the New City has big plans for its building. New lights and modular seating spaces may come as no surprise among the plans for the renovation process, but the crowning achievement will be showing up outside the stage and the box office: The theater is going “green” and starting with its roof.

A green roof is just one of the many new proposals in the works. A renovated facade for the building’s front will put passersby on a stage of their own, complete with seats from which they can be observed. A new cafe for the theater’s interior, a gallery space for artists to hang their paintings and an audio/visual studio are also in the works. And rather than the faux bohemian pretensions of other places, at this bar you’ll be schmoozing with real artists: playwrights, filmmakers and actors who won’t just be waiting on your table.

Theater for the New City started out on First Ave. at E. Tenth St. in 1986, inheriting its space from the city’s Department of Sanitation under the agreement the theater group would completely renovate the interior to get it into working condition as a performance space. The theater wound up with, among other things, a basement full of trash 3 feet deep hiding buried rat poison and other surprises.

“Not what you would expect with a name like ‘Sanitation Department,’” Crystal Field, the theater’s executive director, joked as she showed off what are now the prop lockers and private space for the cast.

The theater faced a huge task in trying to transform the location from a gutted, dirty interior into something safe and usable for patrons and actors. While everyone scrambled to pitch in, difficulties late in the process with the contractor left the theater in debt. The city offered the theater a bailout from its financial straits in return for auctioning off the air rights above the property; the theater was quickly back on its feet with a new, private, residential tower on top.

Having gone from trashed, broken and in debt to full-house runs, an ambitious film-screening program and a number of hit plays, Theater for the New City’s board is looking to continue improving upon what they’ve built. A green roof is the next big step, and many, like environmental expert Paul Bartlett, see the innovative idea as another opportunity to give back to their patrons.

A consultant on the project, Bartlett has a background in green building in contaminated communities. He was involved with the World Trade Center cleanup. He took on the East Village theater project, he said, because it was an opportunity to do the right thing, instead of watching it happen and then criticizing it afterward for not being up to his high standards.

“Anyone can say it’s a green project, but it’s another thing to really do it,” he said. Bartlett said he’s involved to make sure the whole process ultimately is really cost effective.

He talked about the difficulties in heating and cooling a volume of open space as large as a theater. Theater for the New City’s two biggest theaters, the Johnson and the Cino, seat 240 and 74 people, and have 26-foot and 18-foot ceilings, respectively. There are two other operating theaters in the building, and the front offices constitute another large open-air space.

Bartlett explained how a successful $70,000 renovation of the roof had already helped out, but he was enthusiastic about doing even more.

“You want the base roof to be in good shape,” so that the greenery added on top of it for insulation works to maximum effect, he explained. Solar panels are also part of the plan and will provide further energy savings.

Bartlett and Field hope to use the building’s future, environmental-friendly rooftop to reach out to the neighborhood further, by partnering with a college to provide experimental space for agricultural development.

Ed Shea, an environmental lawyer and board member for the theater, talked about the process of going green. Theater for the New City has already begun speaking to an architectural firm about how to adapt green roof models correctly to its space.

“Not just a flower garden,” he said, explaining how specialized vegetation would work in conjunction with the roofing materials. Because of its modular nature, the greenery can be installed in sections over the course of a plan, with different kinds of foliage for different conditions.

Green roofs have attractive environmental aspects, not just for the buildings they’re on top of, but also for the communities in which they are located. They can reduce air pollution by absorbing carbon dioxide, provide a habitat for local animal species and make for an aesthetically pleasing landscape — or “roofscape” — for neighbors to view. And, as Shea explained, green roofs, in large enough numbers, could also reduce the heat-island effect that Manhattan experiences, and help reduce strain on the sewer system by absorbing storm water runoff.

Shea said innovative projects like these create an example for others in the neighborhood to follow, encouraging people by showing the practicality and appeal of going green.

The theater has been looking for other ways to cut costs and has begun talking to Con Edison about installing energy-efficient, compact fluorescent lamp (C.F.L.) lighting.

“A contractor for Con Ed basically knocked on our door and did an energy audit,” said Bartlett, optimistic that in the future they would even be able to come up with more energy-efficient solutions for the stage lighting, their biggest electricity usage. Bartlett and others on the theater’s “green team” are also talking to the New York State Energy Research Development Authority about tax relief and even more ideas in return for their ecologically sustainable renovation plans.

Theater director Fields noted that the staff are ready for the changes to come and capable of handling the challenge.

“You could say we’re overly positioned,” she quipped, talking about how their collective experience would be coming together to make their plans a reality.

For now, they are waiting on fundraising to complete the next phase. It seems that soon Manhattan could be seeing its very first green theater — complete with a green roof. And from the way it’s shaping up, it looks to be a powerful first performance.

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