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Update: Loew’s Canal Street Theatre’s Future

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The section of the theater that fronts on Canal Street was landmarked in 2010.

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 bulk of the theater building runs most of the length of the block on the east side of Ludlow Street between Canal and Hester streets.

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.

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  1. have the interiors been destroyed? i remember looking it up extensively and finding good information, but no recent pictures of the interiors. looks like it was turned into a warehouse.

  2. Can the Sung’s statements be credible? Of course something is happening. Extensive work has been done on repairing the huge roof for the last 2 months. The Sungs, with their long selfish history of neglecting this building would only do such repairs if a sale were at hand!! Just wait and see…

  3. Yet another Thomas Lamb theatre (really America’s preeminent theatre architect who studied at nearby Cooper Union) threatened by demolition. Under the guise of providing “community spaces” with the real goal of squeezing as many square feet of apartment spaces as possible on the footprint. The Flushing RKO Keith’s Theatre in Queens will be demolished for 357 (787 sq ft) apartments, on particularily over-developed  Main Street, right into the LaGuardia airport landing pattern at 17 stories, naturally it has been thus far approved by the BSA with multiple zoning varaiences. The developer has agreed to use the theatre lobby as an apartment lobby, the rest of the theatre has been advertised as gutted, even though an incredible array of art and architectural treaure survives. We should join forces, these theatres need all the help they can get: see photos and the effort on: http://www.facebook.com/groups/220242754654213/

  4. my apt look directly over the building. workers have replaced the roof in the last 2 months. Looked like it was done on the cheap.
    There is a garage door to the theatre on ludlow street which was open last week, during the work.
    I got a small peek inside and it looked gutted.

  5. I was in the Canal about 5 years ago. The auditorium was unused but the rest of the building contained several retail businesses. The lobbies were incredibly intact. The auditorium badly deteriorated because the roof had failed along both sides, allowing rainwater to wash down the walls. In the midst of the deterioration, the seats were covered with polyethylene protective sheeting as in a Broadway house between shows!

  6. Great article, I’ve been wondering what is going on in / with this building for as long as I’ve called it my neighbor. I’m curious to see how it pans out…it’s like a long stretching community soap opera!

  7. Raise eggs, as in have chicken coops inside?  I did see a rooster roaming around that area on Ludlow Street a number of years ago….

  8. Seeems like there is renewed activity in this building. Landmarks commission and DOB posters have gone up. What’s going on?

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