In 2009 and 2010, there was a flurry of activity around the historic Loew’s Canal Street Theatre: the 1926-27 facade at 31 Canal Street was nominated for landmark status; the owners submitted plans to construct apartments above the massive existing structure along Ludlow Street; and a community group proposed reviving the long-vacant building as a cultural and performing arts center.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission permanently protected the Canal Street portion of the building in September 2010. (Read the LPC’s research report, which includes historic photos, here.) But on the other fronts, there’s been no news for over a year. Given some recent chatter on the Cinema Treasures blog and a few of our tipsters noting workers around the theater, we decided to check in on its current status.
The building is owned by Chinatown banker Thomas Sung and his family. We spoke with his daughter Vera, who says that the Sungs recently decided to abandon plans to use their air rights to add stories to the building. A proposal that included 50 apartments, commercial stores and community spaces on a total of 11 stories was submitted to the city’s Department of Buildings in 2009, records show. The plans were rejected by the DOB, most recently in May 2011. Vera Sung told us the family no longer plans to build apartments on the site. They are, however, still pursuing the idea of converting the building into a live theater venue, she said.
“We want to create a performing arts center for the community,” she said. “This is all very preliminary, but there’s been a need expressed by the community to have a performing arts center: dance, music, drama. I’m very excited about it.”
A similar plan was in the works more than a year ago, when a group called CREATE in Chinatown received some economic development funds to study the need for a cultural and performing arts center in or near Chinatown. The Loew’s Canal Theatre topped the list of proposed sites. Meetings were held, architects produced renderings and several media outlets hailed the rebirth of the theater as a modern community center.
But those negotiations fell apart, for reasons that vary depending on who you ask.
“My last impression was they were in talks with owners of another space, in Chinatown proper,” Sung said. “At one point, we were in talks, but we have not heard from them in a very long time.”
CREATE’s leader, Amy Chin, says her group had been very interested in partnering with the Sungs on the project, but in the end, was unable to strike a deal.
“Our architects and consultants investigated many different avenues of making it financially feasible,” Chin told us this week. “But we could not come to an agreement with the owners of that building.”
Sung said her family has not — so far, anyway — partnered with any other community groups or businesses in pursuing their plans for an arts venue.
In the meantime, the building sits empty. The last commercial tenant on the ground floor, an appliance store, departed some time ago. Workers have been cleaning out some debris he left behind, Sung said, by way of explaining some local residents’ reports that there has been demolition and construction activity at the site.
There are no new plans or permit applications on file with the buildings department or the Landmarks Preservation Commission, according to officials at both agencies, though the DOB did send an inspector out to the site on Jan. 9 to investigate a complaint of “illegal work.” No violations were recorded.