WTC Arts Center Snagged

BY Jennifer Maloney Wall Street Journal

A model of Frank Gehry-designed performing-arts center proposed for the WorldTradeCenter site. Frank Gehry Architects, PAC Mass

A model of Frank Gehry-designed performing-arts center proposed for the World Trade Center site. Frank Gehry Architects, PAC Mass

The young nonprofit charged with building a performing-arts center at the World Trade Center faces an uphill battle.

After a rocky financial start, the organization must now raise hundreds of millions of dollars, competing with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum for government funding and high-profile arts projects for private donations. To succeed, it will need to assemble a high-octane board, win over a thus far noncommittal mayor and explain why the project is vital to New York at a time when a handful of similar theater spaces have opened in recent years, cultural leaders and arts-management experts said.

The construction cost last March was pegged at $469 million—a price tag organizers have said they are trying to lower. Some $155 million in federal funds have been allocated for the project.”The jury is still out on whether this can be done,” said Karen Brooks Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opened a flexible, 250-seat theater in 2012. “There may be a saturation point—I’m not sure what it is.”

Maggie Boepple, the center’s director, declined interview requests. A spokesman didn’t respond to questions submitted by The Wall Street Journal, except to say that until Mayor Bill de Blasio appoints a cultural-affairs commissioner, “no arts organization knows what he’s thinking.” Board Chairman John Zuccotti also declined to comment.

In February, project organizers announced a revised vision for the center that includes three small theaters ranging from 150 to 550 seats, and producing a range of theater, music and dance. It tapped David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre in London, as a consulting artistic director.

In a previous plan developed by the Bloomberg administration, the performing-arts center had intended to create a 1,000-seat space for theater and dance in a building designed by Frank Gehry, who was selected as the project’s architect in 2004. Mr. Gehry’s involvement in the project is now unclear, as is the role of the Joyce Theater, a dance company that was to have been a presenter at the center.

Mr. Gehry said he had had “a great working relationship” with former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his administration. “We are looking forward to creating a new relationship with Mayor de Blasio and his team, about whom we have heard great things,” he said.

For more than a decade, planners have envisioned a cultural centerpiece for the resurrected World Trade Center site. City Hall incubated the project, working with Mr. Gehry to develop a conceptual design. Mr. Bloomberg’s cultural-affairs commissioner, Kate Levin, argued that a 1,000-seat theater would fill a void in New York, offering a venue for groups that couldn’t take on the financial risk of trying to fill larger spaces such as the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre perform.

In December 2011, Mr. Bloomberg appointed a skeletal board for a new nonprofit to build and run the center. It included Mr. Zuccotti, co-chairman of Brookfield Office Properties; World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein; and Mr. Bloomberg’s closest adviser, former First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris.

Mr. Bloomberg remained personally involved, most recently meeting with Mr. Gehry last May, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. However, Mr. Bloomberg didn’t allocate city capital funds to the arts center as he did for the Culture Shed, a planned Far West Side exhibition space also incubated by his administration.

Mr. Bloomberg, Ms. Harris and Ms. Levin declined to comment on the current plans for the arts center.

The 9/11 Memorial is seeking government funds to help cover its operating costs, and Mr. Zuccotti has said that additional public funding will be necessary to bring the performing-arts center to fruition. Arts leaders said Mr. de Blasio’s support will be crucial.

“We are still considering how this should fit into the broader redevelopment strategy for the World Trade Center site,” a spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio said.

“Are they too late?” asked Stanley Katz, director of Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. “Bloomberg had both the interest and the means to make this thing happen.”

The nonprofit had a rough year in 2012. The Lower Manhattan Development Corp. delayed the release of $1 million in seed money, citing concerns about the project’s price tag and the group’s ability to raise funds. The arts center group ran a deficit that year of $41,360 out of a budget of $299,102, according to a federal tax return and audited financial statement recently released by the state attorney general’s office. The group also owed nearly $300,000 to the 9/11 Memorial foundation, which had served as an umbrella.

In a fundraising plan prepared last spring at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, Mr. Zuccotti and Ms. Harris said they aimed to raise $188 million by the planned start of construction in 2016. Mr. Cuomo has not yet announced a representative to the group’s board. A spokesman for the governor didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The project’s cost is made greater by the complexity of the site: It would have to be constructed like a 3-D puzzle around infrastructure including PATH train tracks, a vehicle ramp, emergency subway exits and ventilation ducts that would come up through the arts center to more than 40 feet above street level, according to a person familiar with the city’s studies of the site. The arts center would require extensive soundproofing to mitigate the subway vibrations.

Once open, it would compete with similarly sized theater spaces built recently by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center and Signature Theatre Company—all with an emphasis on showcasing new work. By contrast, the Pershing Square Signature Center, a Gehry-designed building on West 42nd Street with three small theaters, cost $66 million to build.

Arts leaders and observers had mixed reactions to the new arts center plan.

“It just seems to me like it’s a Hail Mary,” said Duncan Webb, an arts-management consultant who teaches at New York University.

Others said that if organizers get past the fundraising hurdle, the idea could work. André Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, said he met with Mr. Lan in February to discuss the project.

“At the moment it is all fledgling and much to be worked out,” Mr. Bishop said. “But [Mr. Lan] is an impressive and smart guy.”

Mr. Bishop and other observers said the group hasn’t yet made a clear case for its vision. But they noted that the emotional resonance of the World Trade Center site could be a strong pull for some donors.

Mr. Lan has drawn parallels between the arts center and the Young Vic, which stands on a World War II bombing site. “Where there was violence and destruction, art is now made,” he said, according to a news release last month. “It’s as if theater has helped to heal the wound.”

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