It's been nearly eight years since the marquee atop the Westbury movie theater last glimmered and, in that time, the building and adjoining property has become quite the eyesore to passersby and residents alike.
A look at what the proposed performing arts theater would look like from Post Avenue.
Built in the late 1920s, the Post Avenue movie house was once a staple in Westbury Village. But, in July 2001 the village closed the theater to the public deeming it "unsafe" and demanded former owners Corrine and Rod Straehle do something about it. Over the next two years, legal battles ensued as a result of defaulted property taxes and liens to the village, county, town and Westbury School District. In November 2003, the Supreme Court awarded Westbury the authority to foreclose on the theater but two eleventh hour judgments postponed the public auction another year.
It wasn't until late September 2004 that a bankruptcy sale was held, with Lowe Properties of New York City coming in as the highest bidder, purchasing the theater and its 22,000-square-foot property for just under $1.7 million. Since that time, developer Cyrus Hakakian, who owns Lowe Properties with his three brothers, has made restoring the 1927 structure and revitalizing the 22,000-square-foot property his top priority.
While the building's façade, roof and surrounding property are in terrible need of a facelift, the structure itself, said Hakakian, is sound. "The theater is in derelict condition. It's a skeleton that needs meat. We have a dead building and a guy willing to spend money to bring it back to life," he said.
To do so, Hakakian plans to pour some $7 million into turning the dilapidated movie house into a performing arts theater complete with a two-screen art cinema, a multi-purpose event space, and artist studio lofts as well as a casual theme restaurant and coffee/ice cream shop. The balcony, said Hakakian, will have a retractable wall and be used to show small productions as well as movies he refers to as "oldies but goodies;" it will not show first-run releases. For the main hall and its "one-of-a-kind" stage, Hakakian has proposed a variety of uses, including, but not limited to live theater, children's programs, musicals and dinner-theater. Additionally, the theater space also would be available, free-of-charge, for school productions.
"I believe in giving back to the community," Hakakian said, adding that the stage, itself, is what attracted him to the property. "Our stage is one-of-a-kind on Long Island [in that] it can accommodate a true Broadway show."
A project of this nature, said the developer, will give Westbury Village an advantage over other Long Island downtowns as it will be something different, something no one else around here has.
"[Post Avenue] is a gold mine. It's a main thoroughfare. Everyone is driving through but nobody is stopping," Hakakian said, adding, "What this property needs - and the downtown village needs - is a venue. In order for a downtown in any area to be successful you need an entertainment aspect. This is a great project and it's going to turn Westbury around. The whole downtown revitalization depends on this project [and] everyone in the village will benefit."
Now, after four years of plans and revisions, Hakakian must overcome one last hurdle - parking.
While studies have shown that there is adequate parking within the downtown area for such a proposal, specifically since the theater will be most active in the evenings, village code states otherwise. Additionally, exisiting on-street and municipal field parking cannot be factored in.
At the time the theater was built, the village was not incorporated. As a result, there were no codes or parking requirements in place. When Westbury incorporated in 1932, the theater was "grandfathered" as a pre-existing structure and therefore allowed to remain in use without dedicated parking. However, it lost its "grandfathered" rights when the village forced it to close more than seven years ago.
Therefore, for Hakakian to operate a theater with public assembly and a restaurant under current village codes he must comply with current village zoning and codes, which, based on the specs of the project, would require between 330-340 new parking spots.
As a result, the developer must provide the parking and, in meeting some of the demand, is seeking to purchase a vacant parcel and a home on Newton Street as well as a tenement home on Winthrop Street in order to erect a two-story parking garage that could accommodate approximately 95 vehicles. If a private sale isn't arranged, the village is prepared to take the properties through eminent domain and will work with Nassau County to obtain tax abatements, specifically though Community Development Block Grant monies; the village, concurrent with this, will move forward with condemnation process in the event a private purchase is not reached.
In addition, Lowe Properties is considering purchasing "air rights" to build a parking deck over the village's municipal lot at Lincoln Place and Madison Street should the theater become so successful and additional spots are warranted.
That said, Hakakian will still be short some 240 spots, give or take, and will have to seek a variance from the village's board of zoning appeals before he can move forward with the project. "No one can speak for the board of zoning appeals. They ultimately make that decision," said Mayor Ernest Strada.
In December, Lowe Properties submitted its Expanded Environmental Assessment Form (EEAF), which at this time, is being reviewed along with its independent environmental, condemnation and traffic consultants as well as counsel. It is up to those reviewing the EEAF to determine its adequacy and what, if anything, should be amended or added.
"This is a thorough investigation of how this property should be developed," said Strada. "All of the issues or elements of an environmental review incorporated in this EEAF are being reviewed by the independent consultants representing the village. We need to be sure we do not miss anything that may necessarily be required."
The mayor added that, once the EEAF is resubmitted with any necessary changes or revisions, the village board of trustees, in the end, will be the lead agency in making a determination. "We are working very hard to compliment [the developer's] efforts while, at the same time, we want to be absolutely sure that the decisions we make and the advance of this project is looked at carefully in order to mitigate any concerns or potential impacts. That requires a team effort," said Strada.
"I have been doing whatever I can to get this project on its feet and I understand that the village has concerns," said Hakakian. "I believe that all the concerns have been addressed and answered.
Hakakian references Huntington Village as a prime example. "It's working. When you go there you see all the restaurants, clothing stores, hair salons - and they have less parking than Westbury Village - and it's working," said Hakakian.
While he has no control over the board of zoning appeals and the final outcome of the proposal in terms of the required variances, Strada said that, all things aside, the project is right for Westbury.
"This is something we are very committed to and something, in my opinion, that will be the last piece to the puzzle we have been working on for many years," said Strada. "We have been aggressively involved in downtown revitalization for the last four or five years and the theater is the last step in a full-scale program to basically create a total facelift of the village's downtown."
The mayor added that the project has also sparked the interest and support of Nassau County officials, specifically Executive Tom Suozzi. The county, according to the mayor, is putting together a financing package with an intention to use what the village has already set aside for property acquisitions in Community Development Block Grant monies, which will help the village secure the additional funding it may need for acquisition of the aforementioned properties. "Nassau County has taken a tremendous interest in the theater development. They have identified Westbury as a 'cool downtown' [and] the advance of the development of the theater would solidify that," Strada said, adding that there is also the possibility that the project could qualify for historic grant money from the county because of the age and character of the property.
Despite hard economic times, Hakakian said he remains devoted to the project and eager to move forward with his plans. "This is the time. Even though the economy is down, so are construction costs. By the time we get our feet in there and finish construction, the economy will be on the rebound. We are right there but we have to go in and start doing work," he said, adding that construction should take between 18 months and two years but that he is ready to begin the moment the project is approved. "We are ready to go and will be in there the next day," said Hakakian.
The construction process alone, according to the developer, would create jobs and workers would frequent Post Avenue businesses, injecting some $3 million into the village economy during the development stage alone. Fully operational, Hakakian said the proposed theater could create 28 full-time equivalent jobs and the anticipated 480,000 people expected to visit the theater would generate around $4.8 million in revenue for village restaurants and merchants. Additionally, it is anticipated that the ticket and food sales at the theater could generate approximately $450,000 in annual sales taxes while paying over $700,000 in Nassau County entertainment taxes. Additionally, property taxes on the renovated site could range as high as $342,000 a year as opposed to $119,538 currently being paid on the property.
To Hakakian, all the pieces are there - all he needs is the green light.
"We are very close, but we have been very close for four years," said Hakakian. "This is a perfect opportunity for the village, its downtown - everything shows this will be a viable venue for the downtown. It's a no brainer and it would be a real shame to have it turned down and become an office building or bank."
Strada agrees. "When it is ultimately completed, and I am very confident that it will be, the theater will solidify and re-enforce everything done to date. It would also give us an identity we are looking for. Once the theater is restored, we will be set for many years in the future," the mayor said.