Is Circle Downtown Facing Destruction?

Circle in the Square Downtown, a two-story Bleecker Street structure built in 1917 that has housed everything from a movie theatre to the Amato Opera to dozens of commercial and not-for-profit productions, seems destined to become an eight-story, mixed-use tower, Back Stage has learned.

Executive Director Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation—which is heading up a plan to create a South Village Historic District as a bulwark against unchecked demolition, ineffective zoning, and rampant construction in the area—told Back Stage he is "definitely concerned" about what has already happened to the building.

A developer, Emmut Properties, Berman said, has been "doing alterations and demolition work, so that much of the structure behind the façade, including the theatre, is already gone. When the construction of the [eight-story] structure takes place remains to be seen. My understanding is that to some degree the façade of the old building will be maintained, which is certainly preferable to it not being maintained, but who knows how that will look attached to a modern, eight-story building?

"And I really wish we had seen another theatre go in there," Berman continued. "I happen to know there were nonprofits that have inquired about the space during the years it has been empty and which really wanted to get a hold of it. There wasn't a lack of interest in buyers, but perhaps a lack of dollars—perhaps not as much money as some people felt could be obtained for the property."

What equally concerns Berman is that while he has contacted the developer—via a Mon., Aug. 16 letter to both Emmut Properties and the architect, Eugene Schafer of the Belvidere, N.J.-based Codeworx LLC—he has yet to hear a response. He had hoped, he said, that as "the largest membership organization in Greenwich Village and the neighborhood's primary advocate for preservation of its unique historic qualities," things might have been otherwise.

Berman noted to Back Stage, "Circle in the Square Downtown is a prototypical South Village building—the small theatres, some purposely built, some converted, that are trademarks of this area, physically and culturally. They help define what the neighborhood is about. The scale of the new structure concerns us—that on a street almost entirely consisting of two-to-five-story buildings, it will stick out like a sore thumb. But this also speaks to another ongoing problem: The area is zoned in such a way as to encourage 'community facilities' that make for out-of-scale buildings."

In essence, according to Berman, the city's zoning code allows developers, if they elect to include a loosely defined "community facility" as part of the property, the "ability to build much larger buildings—up to twice the otherwise allowable bulk. In this case, [Emmut Properties] is only exploiting a percentage of what they could by dedicating only part of the building to a community facility, whatever it will be."

Back Stage, too, contacted John Young of Emmut Properties and at press time had not received a reply.

Berman, however, is also reaching out beyond one-on-one communications with the developer. The same day his organization sent its letter to Emmut Properties, it wrote to Robert Tierney, chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission—the group that might ultimately give its stamp of approval to the proposed South Village Historic District—and to Mary Beth Betts, the commission's director of research. In the letter, Berman stated that aside from the loss of Circle in the Square, the new structure "will significantly compromise the unified historic 19th- and early 20th-century character" of Bleecker Street. A third letter, with similar content, was mailed to Amanda Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission.

Berman also contacted, via email, Michael Haberman, director of government and community relations for New York University, whose construction of the new and nearby Kimmel Center for University Life caused much consternation in Greenwich Village. Subsequently, according to Berman, the university has expressed its support for the goals of the South Village Historic District. "As NYU is a supporter of the Historic South Village preservation effort," the email reads, "I would strongly urge the university not to support a development which would have a negative impact upon the historic integrity of this area…. Is NYU willing to make a commitment that it won't be exploiting the added bulk in this development? …[W]ould you be willing to reach out to the developer to let them know that NYU will not be interested in the community facility space in this building?"

Haberman replied: "No one here knows anything about the Circle in the Square development."

Meanwhile, Berman confirmed that his organization is hard at work managing a "600-building study area" of the South Village that will be submitted to an architectural historian to produce "a compelling analysis that we will use for a more fleshed-out proposal for landmarking the South Village."

As reported last January in Back Stage, the district's dimensions have already been determined. Beginning on the west side of LaGuardia Place and West 3rd Street, the district would extend south to the corner of Grand Street in SoHo, then turn west and then northwest in a modified zigzag pattern until reaching the narrow ravines that sprout out from Seventh Avenue South, including Carmine, Downing, Jones, and Cornelia streets.

While the Landmarks Preservation Commission created a Greenwich Village Historic District in 1969—protecting more than 2,000 structures and encompassing one-third of the Village—the parameters of the proposed South Village Historic District include structures not originally part of that designation.

Among those structures are five theatres: Circle in the Square, the Sullivan Street Playhouse (empty since "The Fantasticks" departed), the Provincetown Playhouse, the Players Theatre, and the Minetta Lane Theatre. The cinema undergoing renovation at West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue would be part of the district as well.

"Designating an historic district," Berman said in January, "mitigates one of the biggest threats to the loss of all the buildings in the South Village: the opportunity for wholesale tear-downs of the structures to replace them with high-rises." While he doesn't "hold out a lot of hope" for Circle in the Square at the present time, Berman does say that perhaps the other theatres in the area might not have to suffer quite the same fate.