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Owner of Loew’s Canal Theater: Supports Preservation, Assessing Economic Impact of Community Space

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There’s been a lot of speculation in the last several months about the fate of the Loew’s Canal Theater. This morning, at a hearing of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we learned a bit more about the intentions of the owner, Chinatown developer Thomas Sung.

As we have been reporting, an arts coalition wanted to transform the shuttered space into a Chinese cultural center. At the same time, the Commission has been moving to protect the Canal Street facade. Sung came to today’s hearing, testifying that he’s trying to balance preservation, community needs and financial viability:

We are pretty much in agreement with the Landmarks Commission in designating this building as a landmark. Our family, when we first bought the building, as with any investors, of course we were hoping to develop the property. Throughout the years that we have owned the building the property value has matured. We are in the process of trying to convert the building, with the preservation, as a landmark. It places a look of restrictions of the uses of the building. However I must say through the dedicated, able staff of the commission, we deeply appreciate bringing to us awareness of the historic value of the building. At some point in life we all must recognize, I guess, the value beyond a commercial purpose, so we are very much in a frame of mind to cooperate with the Landmarks Commission.

Sung added that he supports the idea of a cultural center, but that there are many issues to be resolved.  “It (creating a community facility) will have an impact on the economic value,” he said.  “At some point we will be seeking a variance, not to much to create more value… but to enable us to bring about a worthy public purpose.”

Last year, Sung and the arts organization (CREATE), jointly announced that an architect (hired by the Sung family) was conducting an engineering feasibility study to determine whether apartments could be built over the theater.  After the hearing, Sung told me he will meet with the architect soon to go over the results.  The variance would be required for permission to build a larger number of apartments, which Sung said, would be a key to making the project “economically viable.”

Also testifying at today’s hearing, Councilmember Margaret Chin:

This is a jewel we have on the Lower East Side. By landmarking this (building) I hope it will help bring some opportunity to the community. I think we can all work together to preserve our history in the neighborhood and to have some development that can help the community. We look at it as an opportunity for some kind of cultural institution because, sadly, in Chinatown we have lost all of our theaters. I mean the theaters I grew up watching Cantonese opera are no longer there… We can really highlight our culture and the really good performance that people really don’t get to see.

As we reported yesterday, CREATE head Amy Chin is still interested in the Loew’s Canal Theater. But since a grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. expires soon, the group can’t wait for the Sung family any longer. She’s now focusing on other buildings in the neighborhood, including a building at 70 Mulberry. Sung told me he’s open to working with Chin’s group, as well as other non-profit organizations that might ne interested in establishing a community space.

The Commission also heard from Lower East Side historian, Joyce Mendelsohn. She pointed out that the building is one of only three Loews theaters remaining in Manhattan, and that “stands as a reminder of a vibrant period in popular culture on the Lower East Side and as a survivor among the dwindling number of architecturally significant movie palaces erected in the 1920’s.”

We’ll let you know as soon as there’s word about the Commission’s decision (approval is almost certain).

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