Even on a block where the majority of its neighboring buildings are branded, the Metro Theater stands out. On the one hand, it’s tiny: at just two stories, the metro is an Art Deco shard at the foot of the Ariel East, Extell’s 37-story glass tower that’s so tall it made you scream. dismayed the Upper West Siders when his design was revealed.
The theater’s terracotta tricolor facade, which served to advertise screenings of adult movie classics like “The Organ Trail,” is “one of the most beautiful facades of its kind,” according to city historians.
But beneath beauty, the main thing is something more frightening. Despite occupying 10,000 square feet of prime real estate in one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the subway is empty. In fact, the small theater at 2626 Broadway between 99th and 100th streets has not had a tenant since 2006.
Its owner, Albert Bialek, has teased one new lease after another, with uses ranging from an arthouse cinema chain to a budget gym. But each proposal fell flat and, in the meantime, Bialek was billed more than $ 840,000 in municipal property taxes, according to public records.
Iconic buildings don’t have to be financial losers. The city is home to everything from the Empire State Building to townhouses in Park Slope. Over 37,000 properties are subject to Department of Preservation restrictions on development and renovations. But the metro has failed to thrive for a unique set of reasons as varied as its history.
The Cinema Palace
âThe Upper West Side has always been seen as the creative side,â said Sean Khorsandi, executive director of Landmark West !, a non-profit organization that strikes to preserve historic properties in the neighborhood. “The [Upper] The east side was money, money, high society, âhe said. Meanwhile, the West could collapse.
As the movies got more sophisticated, adding sound and then color, so did the buildings where people watched them. In the 1920s, opulent movie palaces spread across the country, becoming cultural and community centers. Guests could socialize in their double-height foyers before watching weekly news in lush theaters so large they could accommodate thousands of people.
The metro was not such a palace. âWhat’s interesting about the metro is that it wasn’t meant to be a huge link for the arts,â Khorsandi said. “It was a neighborhood theater.”
As the Great Depression hit everyday New Yorkers, movie palaces gave way to smaller movie theaters. They only sat a few hundred people, but offered an accessible way for people to soak their toes in comfort for a few hours a week.
The architectural firm Boak & Paris designed the metro (then called Midtown) in 1932. The theater opened shortly after Radio City Music Hall, at the height of New York’s Art Deco phase.
In preservation and redevelopment battles, people often fight for what comes next. But what preceded the metro is also essential: In November 1931, with the national unemployment rate hitting nearly 16%, developers demolished a seven-story building to make way for the theater. It offered cultural enrichment, but was done to the detriment of social housing.
âIf we had walked around this section of Broadway,â observed Lynne Marthey, the city researcher who studied the opportunity to mark the theater in 1989, âwe would have had a choice of eighteen theaters. to watch movies. At the end of the 1980s, only four of these cinemas were still standing; now the metro is alone.
Starts and stops
No one can say for sure why the metro closed. Some cite the construction noise of the East and West Ariel, which probably made it difficult to watch a movie in peace. Others emphasize the preference of a late operator for foreign films with limited release; even on the Upper West Side, there are only a limited number of Fellini fans.
The subway sits in a potentially lucrative corner of Manhattan – it’s easily accessible on foot for wealthy Central Park West residents and Columbia University students and faculty.
âThe market, especially here, has changed a lot,â said Michael Shkreli, a retail broker for Winick specializing in the neighborhood. âYou have a lot more Type A tenants, the Sweetgreens of the world, signing leases,â he said.
Broadway in particular opens up different opportunities for tenants. The double-width thoroughfare is a valley of big box shopping between the small restaurants on Amsterdam Avenue and the dense residential developments further west.
The metro remained empty, but not for lack of trying. In 2009 he got his first brush with post-theater hire. Winick president at the time, Benjamin Fox, announced that Urban Outfitters had signed a 20-year lease on the building. But even then, there were signs that something might be wrong.
âIt’s not the easiest space to work with,â Urban Outfitters CEO Ted Marlowe told Women’s Wear Daily. âWe still have work to do,â he said.
Ultimately, the trendy clothing retailer pulled out and set up a storefront directly across from Broadway. Buyers could see the theater’s iconic facade as they exited the new location.
Although Urban never moved in, the abandoned deal still left its mark on the metro. The old dual-screen theater has been gutted to make way for an expected retail store, leaving a historic exterior but a blank slate inside. From now on, it is neither theater nor store, a master of nothing in a field full of other opportunities.
âPeople who want a theater don’t want to build one from scratch, and those who want retail space, there is now an overabundance of retail space,â Khorsandi said.
The next subway heartache came in 2013. Alamo Drafthouse, the Austin-based movie chain that serves dinner, beer, and art films, was renovating to convert the space into a five-screen theater. The CEO of the company gave a lengthy interview to West Side Rag, and photos of the construction were published in the New York Times. They even published a menu for the location.
Then came the blog post.
âUltimately, the location is no longer financially viable for us,â the company wrote in October 2013, citing increased construction costs resulting from the recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy. “We would like to make the Upper West Side location our next neighborhood theater in New York City, but we cannot view this particular location as sustainable under current conditions.”
A source close to the negotiations said a celebrity-owned national theater chain is expected to set up next. But for now, the theater’s peeling red paint reflects the late summer sun as it has for over a decade as it settles for another lonely winter.
âEvery time I walked past this building, I got a note of sadness, like, ‘Ah, what could they do with this,'” said Steven Brown, president of Manhattan Community Board 7. But even more recent efforts to convert the building to Blink Fitness have failed.
In July of last year, the DOB rejected a proposal to convert the theater into a general retail space, according to public records. The project would have cost about $ 1.2 million and added almost 10,000 square feet of space. Bialek remains unfazed and, in a series of telephone interviews, claimed that something was imminent.
“More than a day or two to sign the lease with a very special tenant,” he said last Friday. âThe tenant we were expecting. But for now, the papers are not official. While waiting for his next star turn, Broadway continues without him.
âThis is just a point on the radar in the life of this monument,â Khorsandi said.