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LETTER - Whose Rights Are They, Anyway?

Dear Editor:

The so-called "theatre district" rezoning, discussed in the Jan. 2-6 Back Stage, is not all it is cracked up to be.

The bizarre concept of transferring air rights from above Broadway theatres to allow extended high-rise development in and around Hell's Kitchen is as convoluted as any bad theatre plot. Completely shut out of the planning for this dramatic change are the affected communities: those in the neighborhood and the rank and file in the arts. As a resident of Hell's Kitchen and a playwright, I wonder: Whose rights are these, anyway?

Hell's Kitchen is a wonderfully diverse residential community that houses a huge number of actors, writers and theatre workers. True, it lacks open space and parks--there is not even a centrally located, grassy respite like Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side.

Perhaps that is why special zoning protects the neighborhood from too many stories. What we do have is a sense of relief from walking past the hulking Broadway high-rises into our lower density neighborhood with its bodegas, affordable ethnic restaurants, and apartments that can still get some light free from towering stress.

Broadway theatre owners intend to put an end to that. While refusing to include our community leaders in planning, profit-making theatres offer to wrap up and sell the air above them so that it can be added on to the construction of huge towers on the west side of Eighth Avenue (where 24 to 33 stories are already allowable). With bulldozers on call, development and all of its ugly ramifications for affordable and amenable living space will extend quickly into the neighborhood.

Where we once had Hell's Kitchen, theatre owners will help chop it into merely hell. The exchange, we are told by the Broadway Initiative, is not simply theatre owners' cash windfall, but a promise to develop more drama on Broadway.

Will Broadway theatre owners be knocking on my door and those of other writers in Hell's Kitchen to sign options and snap up our dramatic rights with their newfound millions? Call me cynical; but somehow, I doubt it.

There are real ways to support the community of artists. What about an arts resource center, one that could subsidize and list inexpensive apartments? What about a central outlet for selling tickets to Off-Off Broadway and alternative theatres? What about support for youth arts programs, such as the acclaimed 52nd St. Project? What about free tickets for neighborhood residents?

Yet, even then, how can theatrical events, by nature temporal, compensate for the permanent loss of our quality of life? Shaw himself would have difficulty finding the moral in that show. Critics say theatre today suffers from a loss of irony: I think the creative packaging of air demonstrates its neo-abundance.

Cynthia L. Cooper

New York, NY

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