Earlier this month, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi announced that Westbury Village would receive a little over $1 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) monies and an additional $450,000 in stimulus assistance toward restoration of the vacant Post Avenue movie theater and expansion of nearby parking. While this commitment from the county will no doubt help the village and Lowe Properties turn their vision for the dilapidated and empty movie theater into a reality, additional financial assistance is also being sought.
"The village is very anxious to see the project break ground in the near future. The commitment by County Executive Suozzi of $1.5 million of CDBG and stimulus money over the next three years should enable [the property owner] to get started in the next several months, and the village has committed to coordinating and expediting the review processes to get us to the next phase," said Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro.
As a result, the village, in working with developer Cyrus Hakakian, who owns Lowe Properties with his brothers, is applying for funding through the state's Restore New York's Communities Initiative. Enacted in the 2006-2007 state budget, the initiative encourages economic development and neighborhood growth by providing municipalities with financial assistance for revitalization of commercial and residential properties.
Lowe Properties is seeking to invest nearly $8 million to restore the vacant movie house and turn it into a performing arts theater complete with a dinner-theater and a two screen cinema with retractable walls for a variety of uses, including, but not limited to live theater, children's programs, musicals and big-screen broadcast events. The proposal also includes a multipurpose event space and artist studio lofts, a casual theme restaurant and a coffee/ice cream shop along with restoration of the theater's original stage, which is one-of-a-kind on Long Island in that it can accommodate a Broadway show.
Through the Restore New York (NY) initiative, grant monies are awarded for development and redevelopment projects that promise to revitalize community business centers, induce investment and improve area housing. To be eligible, projects need to be architecturally consistent with nearby and adjacent properties or in a manner consistent with the municipality's local revitalization or urban development plan.
The goal of the Restore NY initiative is to revitalize urban centers in an effort to fund projects that, once completed, attract individuals, families, industry and commercial enterprises to the municipality. It is further anticipated that with an improved community and business climate will come an increased tax base thereby improving municipal finances, further developing the municipality's tax and recourse base and lessening its dependence on state aid.
The vacant movie theater appears to be the perfect candidate for the Restore NY funding in that it meets many of the eligibility requirements, including but not limited to restoration of the property and building itself.
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." Over the next two years, legal battles with former owners Rod and Corrine Straehle 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. In late September 2004 a bankruptcy auction sale was held, with Lowe Properties winning the right to purchase the theater and its nearly 24,000-square-foot property.
Since purchasing the dilapidated property four years ago at a price of $1.65 million, Lowe Properties has not yet had an opportunity to see a return on their investment. Additionally, in order to meet village code and provide adequate parking, the developer needs to provide parking in the area immediately surrounding the theater. The village has worked with Lowe Properties to resolve that need by allowing the developer to purchase air rights over its Madison Avenue municipal parking field to construct a parking development.
"The village has worked very hard with Mr. Hakakian to get the proposal to this point, where he will be able to provide a significant number of parking spaces, which makes the project feasible," said Cavallaro.
The high cost to repair and reconstruct the building by recreating the original architecture as much as possible is among the reasons why public funding assistance can make a difference.
According to Hakakian, a project of this nature will give Westbury Village an advantage over other Long Island downtowns. "In order for a downtown in any area to be successful you need an entertainment aspect. This is a great project and [will] turn Westbury around. It will be something different, something no one else around here has," Hakakian stated in a February 2009 edition of The Westbury Times. "The whole downtown revitalization depends on this project [and] everyone in the village will benefit."
Cavallaro said the village "fully supports the application for Restore New York funding because the redevelopment of the theater is one of the last key pieces in our downtown revitalization. This is exactly the kind of project that these funds were intended to assist, so the funds could not really be spent any better by New York State."
In applying for the Restore NY funds, Lowe Properties is working closely with Tom Savino, former Westbury Village clerk and founder and president of Vision Accomplished, Inc., a comprehensive consulting firm specializing in community and economic development, downtown revitalization and site development. Savino said he took on the theater proposal because he believes it is not only important to Westbury but is also the most important building revival in the county.
"If the restoration of the theater happens the right way, there is no limit to this downtown's potential," said Savino. "The essence of this is so critical. This is the most important piece of the revitalization of the village. What a boost this could be to Westbury and Nassau County."
The Restore New York's Communities Initiative is currently in its third and final year; in late 2006, the state awarded the first round of grants, totaling $50 million, to 54 New York localities and, in 2008, a second round of grants totaling $100 million were awarded to 64 localities. Westbury Village and Lowe Properties are applying for the third and final round of the initiative, which, for 2009, total $150 million. Through the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), a total of $300 million in funding for the sole purpose of revitalizing urban areas and stabilizing neighborhoods will be distributed.
"During difficult and challenging economic times, the innovative Restore New York program [is] crucial to rebuilding our economy and launching New York on a path toward full economic recovery," stated Governor David Paterson in an online press release. "This program will revitalize New York's cities, towns and villages by leveraging both public and private funds. Municipalities across the state can improve their business and community climates to attract industry, commercial enterprises and families ... I look forward to announcing Round 3 recipients and witnessing the positive transformations that these projects will stimulate."
The grant is extremely competitive with municipalities throughout the state vying for a piece of the pie. Awards will be made to qualified applicants based on statutory criteria and, to the fullest extent possible, in a geographically proportioned manner throughout the state. Strong emphasis will be placed on project feasibility and readiness and priority will be given to projects that leverage other state or federal redevelopment, remediation or planning programs including, but not limited to the Brownfield Opportunity Areas program and Empire Zones - of which the incorporated areas of Westbury (New Cassel) are.
The deadline for Round 3 of the Restore New York's Communities Initiative is May 4 and municipalities chosen will be announced later this year.