Finalists Pitch Downtown Venue Proposals

Thomas Breen photoWho will bring more people to downtown New Haven? Who has the sounder business plan, and the deeper pockets? And who will better complement the entertainment district’s current mix of restaurants, theaters, clubs, concert venues, schools, and other community arts groups?

Those were some of the many questions asked Monday night during a New Haven Parking Authority meeting dedicated almost entirely to discussing who will next occupy the vacant commercial space on the ground floor of the Crown Street Garage.

Parking Authority board members and a seven-person selection committee consisting primarily of local business owners spent over an hour quizzing the two applicants—the New Haven Center for Performing Arts, Inc. (NHCPA) and a consortium consisting of Long Wharf, the Shubert, and Albertus Magnus—vying to fill the 10,000 square-foot, publicly-owned space at the corner of Crown Street and College Street.

Keith Mahler, who manages the College Street Music Hall and the Space Ballroom in Hamden, and local attorney Steve Mednick appeared on behalf of NHCPA. Josh Borenstein, the managing director of Long Wharf Theatre, did most of the heavy lifting for the consortium, with support from a half-dozen other representatives from Long Wharf, the Shubert, and Albertus Magnus.

Click here to read about the College Street Music Hall’s proposal to build a mid-size concert venue in the currently vacant space, and about the consortium’s proposal to convert the former dance club into a 200-seat theater, a 90-seat cabaret, and a rehearsal studio.

Although both proposals aim to attract more visitors to downtown New Haven by enriching the city entertainment district’s cultural offering, Monday night’s presentations revealed that broad goal is just about the only thing that the two applications, and the two applicants, have in common.

Over 30 people packed the Parking Authority’s 232 George St. headquarters for the presentations and a question-and-answer session. The Parking Authority board will likely pick between the two applicants at their next board meeting, on Oct. 15.

“This Won’t Fail”

Mahler, representing the College Street Music Hall, spoke quietly but with unflappable confidence in his project, which he referred to as the District Ballroom.

He sat with Mednick at one end of the table, quickly flipped through a summary of NHPCA’a application, and returned again and again to the critical and financial success of the College Street Music Hall. He emphasized the security of his financial backing, and the “multiplier effect” that the two venues across the street from one another will have in attracting quality music and comedy acts to the Elm City.

(Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch Mahler’s presentation and the subsequent question-and-answer session. The presentation begins at the 5:00 minute mark.)

“Why NHCPA?” he asked. “There’s no delays. There’s no excuses. There’s no wasteful spending. There’s no financing contingency. There’s no capital campaigns.”

He said that the non-profit already has its private financing lined up for the project, and that its planned $2 million renovation of the space could happen right after NHCPA finishes negotiating a lease with the Parking Authority and pulls the necessary building permits from the city.

He said NHCPA only needed five months in 2015 to renovate and open the College Street Music Hall, a much larger space with a 2,000-person capacity. He said the District Ballroom’s capacity will be somewhere between 450 and 900 people, and that the venue should take around the same amount of time, if not less, as its larger counterpart across the street.

Avi Szapiro, the chef and owner of Roia and a member of the Parking Authority’s selection committee, asked how many nights a week Mahler anticipates the District Ballroom will be open.

Mahler said the venue should be open four or five nights each week, which should attract around 2,500 new music fans downtown every seven days. He said the venue will operate on a 12-month calendar, and that the venue will bring in bands that are too big for the 300-person capacity Space Ballroom in Hamden and too small for the College Street Music Hall.

As for NHCPA’s marketing savvy, he referred to College Street Music Hall’s two upcoming performances by comedian Aziz Ansari. He said that the first show sold out within several hours of tickets going on sale last week, and that the second show is already virtually sold out.

“I hesitate to tell you what the marketing budget was,” he said, “but it was probably less than $100. We do know what we’re doing. We know how to bring people downtown.”

He reiterated the terms laid out in NHCPA’s application: that they are willing to negotiate on rent, and recognize the Parking Authority’s $6 per square foot minimum requirement; that they recognize the board’s request for a $60,000 up front payment upon signing of a lease; that they would like to negotiate a longer term than the 10-year initial maximum included in the board’s RFP; and that they are not seeking any waivers from the board when it comes to the board’s financial requirements for the space.

“You don’t feel like you’re competing with yourself?” asked selection committee member Jackie Buster.

“If I am the competition,” Mahler replied with a smile, “better that I compete with myself than that I compete with somebody else.”

Selection committee member and former Parking Authority chair Tony Bialecki asked Mahler if NHCPA would seek any compensation from the board in case the non-profit’s business plans don’t work out as planned and he decides to fold up shop within a year or two.

“This won’t fail,” Mahler replied. “Tony, we won’t fail at it. Plain and simple.”

Entertainment And Community

For the Long Wharf, Shubert, and Albertus Magnus consortium’s proposal, Borenstein walked the board and committee members through a brief PowerPoint presentation outlining their proposal to divide the former club into four distinct spaces: a 200-seat theater, a 90-seat cabaret, a rehearsal studio, and a lobby.

(Click on the Facebook Live video below to watch Borenstein’s presentation and the subsequent question-and-answer session.)

Throughout his presentation, he emphasized that the consortium’s proposal, which he referred to as the College/Crown Complex, will not only bring an estimated 51,000 new theatergoers to downtown every year. It will also serve as a neighborhood hub for students, local artists, and other community groups to meet, practice, and collaborate.

“You don’t have to choose between an entertainment venue and a community resource,” he said. “Our partnerships bring all of that to the table already.”

Walking through the key details laid out in the consortium’s written submission, Borenstein said that the group would like to divide the old club into a “small but very vibrant arts complex that has four distinct spaces.”

Long Wharf Theatre will take the lead in programming plays for the proposed 200-seat theater, he said, with the Shubert also using the space for smaller productions than what they are used to putting on at their historic College Street location.

He said that Long Wharf, Shubert, and Albertus would also collaborate to develop a theater program directed specifically towards young audiences and families.

The cabaret, meanwhile, would be programmed primarily by the Shubert, and would be modeled off of New York City’s Joe’s Pub in bringing a mix of musicians, spoken word artists, and dramatic readings to the intimate 90-seat space.

The rehearsal studio, he said, would be used by Long Wharf, Albertus, and local high schools like Co-Op, while the lobby for the 200-seat theater would also be available to rent and use as a meeting space when shows aren’t taking place on the main stage.

“What we’re proposing is really a theater and a cabaret space that complement everything else that’s already downtown,” he said. “You’ve got dining. You’ve already got dancing. You have live music. The Shubert provides the Broadway series. This really fits in and offers complementary programming to supplement everything else that’s going on in the downtown sector.”

He said the venue would host over 500 performances across 288 different days each year.

Szapiro asked where do the roughly 77 days that the theater would be dark fall each year in the calendar.

“All weeks are not created equal,” Borenstein said. He said that Long Wharf’s usual dark month is July, and that would likely be the case at the College /Crown Complex as well.

Selection committee member Jim Whitney pointed out that the consortium’s application asks for waivers of the one-time $60,000 payment, the annual Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) payment, and an annual lease lower than $6 per square foot.

“Do you think you could swing it if you didn’t get those waivers?” Whitney asked.

“If you were interested in us but the concern was our financial proposal,” Borenstein said, “we would happily enter into a conversation about how we would make that work.”

Kelly Wuzzardo, the Shubert’s education director, said that the historic theater already runs a theater summer camp all July at Co-Op High School across the street, and that the new rehearsal studio in the proposed venue would allow the Shubert to expand its summer camp offerings, and even add an adult theater camp to its current student-only programming.

“New Haven is the cultural capital of Connecticut,” said Laura Pappano, Long Wharf’s board chair. “And the Yale drama school does attract wonderful people who then go on to have national reputations. But there are a lot of jobs in the theater that there isn’t training for now, even though there is this great rich arts community here. And I think this is a great opportunity to fill that need.”

After the presentations, city transit chief Doug Hausladen, who also serves as the Parking Authority’s executive director and as staff on the Crown Street Garage commercial space selection committee, said that the committee members should aim to submit their assessments of each proposal to the Parking Authority board members within the next two weeks. He said the committee will likely make a formal recommendation of a particular proposal at the board’s October meeting, after which the board itself will have to pick between the two applications.

Monday night’s meeting represented the latest step in a four-month process that has seen the Parking Authority put out a Request for Proposal (RFP), hold an open house attended by 45 interested visitors, and then announce at the end of August that it had received two applications for the garage retail space.


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posted by: Noteworthy on September 25, 2018  8:46am

Private Enterprise - Taxpaying Every Time Notes:

1. This is a no brainer. One is well funded; meets the financial requirements, has financing, can get started immediately, has record of success and is about putting on maximum number of events. And wants a longer lease.

2. The other wants to negotiate the entire financial picture, depends on donations, doesn’t have the money and wants a limited scope.

3. What’s the $60,000 up front payment cover?

posted by: 1644 on September 25, 2018  11:06am

Noteworthy:  Plus, year round operation versus being dark in the summer.  The Shubert, Rep, YSD, and various Dramats all going dark in the summer must depress restaurant sales. 

I presume the $60K payment is like earnest money in a real estate sale: it shows the buyer is making a serious offer.  The fact that the Shubert cannot or will not come up with $60K shows (a) they are undercapitalized or (b) not serious.

posted by: westville man on September 25, 2018  11:16am

I’m with Noteworthy on this one.  Enough with the tax breaks for the “Arts” already.  We are saturated with them.  Let someone pay the freight like most of us do.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on September 25, 2018  11:32am

Either proposal, if built, would be an asset for the city. But, following Noteworthy’s points, I wonder how quickly the consortium could get financing for its project. Neither the state nor the city are in a position to write checks. And recent changes in federal tax law make it harder for non-profits to raise money from individuals.

posted by: OutofTown on September 25, 2018  1:39pm

New Haven does NOT need:

1. Another poorly funded not-for-profit
2. Weak tenants within Prime commercial space space
3. Another drain on City tax dollars

Why give down-payment funding support to a weak tenant (i.e. LWSAM), just hoping it will be okay?  Teaching and camping belong within the Co-Op high school next door, NOT on a prime corner.

posted by: robn on September 25, 2018  5:20pm

Easy choice.

College Street Music Hall has been making money from day 1.
Schubert has always relied upon financial support from city.

posted by: Esbey on September 25, 2018  5:59pm

Yep, this one is totally easy.  College Street is a huge success, with a proven track record.  It will generate many more dollars for downtown businesses and much more positive activity on the street.

posted by: Bill Saunders on September 25, 2018  8:21pm

Everybody knows my position on this.

It is nice to be preaching ‘with the choir’ for a change!

posted by: jayj on September 26, 2018  7:00am

My vote is with Long Wharf et al.  I grew up in New Haven when we were a Mecca of performance spaces. Performance Studio, little Theater, etc.  We allowed and inspired our community’s creativity and allows for a place of acceptance and respect.  I cannot imagine my life without that experience.  It shapes us more than we will ever know.  Our community will be much better off.

posted by: JCFremont on September 26, 2018  8:08am

It’s a young persons area. LW has two stages and had an opportunity to move downtown years ago. I think one of the reasons for staying at the wharf was free parking. There are plenty of college stages and if there is an audience for cabaret the promoters of the music hall will find a way to stage it in their venues. Perhaps the Davenport or Study could set up a Piano Bar.

posted by: CaptainNutmeg on September 26, 2018  9:20am

Both projects sound great. The College Street folks are proposing to bring 130,000 people into New Haven annually versus the consortium’s 51,000. On that basis alone, they are the better proposition for the local bars, restaurants, and retailers.

posted by: 1644 on September 27, 2018  9:07am

Mr. Breen:  What are the eight criteria the proposals are being evaluated on?  I suspect many of them have a lot to do with community involvement rather than economic impact.

posted by: Sean O'Brien on September 27, 2018  4:12pm

Yale is renovating Woolsey Hall + Memorial Hall + The Commons into a huge performance space as the new Schwarzman Center, with smaller spaces planned for theatre and the performing arts (at last count they’re planning three separate venues/stages *besides* Woolsey Hall and The Commons, which will not just be a dining hall anymore). It not only is modeled after DC’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but Yale hired their former head to be in charge of Schwarzman.

The various theater and performance groups around NHv need to apply pressure and form partnerships to be included in that, and leave this new space on College/Crown to College Street Music Hall and The District. I’m sure this theatre consortium’s interests would be better served at Schwarzman anyway.