1250 Broadway, 27th Floor New York, NY 10001


City Planning Approves National Black Theater Building in East Harlem

Project outline over existing structure. Image Credit: CPC.

The National Black Theater is developing new performance space, retail space, and 240 residential units, including 72 affordable units, in East Harlem. On October 18, 2017, the City Planning Commission issued a favorable report on an application by NBT Victory Development LLC. The application for a zoning map amendment, a zoning text amendment, and a special permit to waive required parking will facilitate the development of a 20-story mixed-used building including housing, retail space, and performance space for the National Black Theater. The project area is bordered by East 126th Street to the north, East 125th Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the west, and residences and community facilities to the east. The project address is 2031-2033 Fifth Avenue.

The National Black Theater, which has operated in Harlem for over 50 years, owns the project site. The Theater was founded in 1968 by the late Dr. Barbara Ann Teer—it is one of the oldest Black theaters in the country and among the longest owned and operated by a Black woman. It was also the first organization to establish a revenue-generating Black art complex, at 2031 Fifth Avenue in Harlem, its current location. 2033 Fifth Avenue is occupied by a two-story commercial building containing retail and commercial office space.

Other establishments in the surrounding area include the Apollo Theater, the Studio Museum, the Harlem USA center, the Harlem State Office Building, the landmarked Theresa Towers, Gotham Pizza, the Northern Manhattan Nursing Home, and the Salvation Army Community Center. The surrounding area is a mix of one-story retail buildings and low-scale residences, and is well-served by mass transportation.

The proposed development is a 20-story building containing residences, retail space, and the National Black Theater’s performing space. The ground floor and cellar would contain retail space and storage. Also on the ground floor, the Theater lobby will face Fifth Avenue, and the residential entrance will face 126th street. The Theater will occupy the second, third, and fourth floors with a double-height Theatre, the Black Box Theater, classrooms, and offices. The fifth through twentieth floors will contain 240 residential units, 72 of which will be permanently affordable through Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.

The project area is located in the Special 125th Street District—a city initiative to strengthen and support 125th Street’s role as an arts, entertainment, and business center. It was approved by the City Planning Commission in 2008. The Special 125th Street District spans 24 blocks in Harlem and is bounded by 124th Street, 126th Street, Broadway, and Second Avenue.

The Special 125th Street District provides for arts bonuses—zoning incentives for the creation of nonprofit visual or performing arts spaces within new developments. The art bonus allows four square feet of extra floor area for every one square foot of floor area provided for unfinished visual or performing arts space within the development. The bonus is only available in C4-7, C6-3, and C4-4D districts within the Special District. This will be the first development to use the art bonus.

The zoning map amendment will rezone the project area from a C4-4A to a C4-7 district. This rezoning will increase the maximum allowable residential density by three times. This allows for the development of both mixed-income housing and modern performance space.

The zoning text amendment will create a new subdistrict within the Special 125th Street District to apply special floor area, height and setback, and ground floor design regulations. The subdistrict, named Subdistrict A, will encompass the project area. While C4-7 districts have a maximum building height of 195 feet, the zoning text amendment will increase the maximum building height to 245 feet. The setback requirements on the tower facing 125th Street will be modified from 15 feet to 10 feet to create more efficient residential space.

The zoning text amendment will also modify the window glazing and signage requirements in place for the Special 125th Street District. The NBT operates theaters without windows, and needs a waiver of the 50% transparency requirement to accommodate the design needs of the theater space. Marquee signs are not permitted for venues not fronting 125th Street. The zoning text amendment will modify this regulation so that the NBT can place their marquee sign at their desired location, above the main Fifth Avenue entrance, 100 feet north of 125th Street.

Lastly, the zoning text amendment will also establish a Mandatory Inclusionary Housing area on the project site. The NBT Victory Development LLC seeks to use either Option 1, 25% of units permanently affordable for households earning 60% of the Average Median Income (“AMI”), or Option 2, 30% of units permanently affordable for households earning 80% of AMI. This will create approximately 72 permanently affordable units.

The special permit will waive all required accessory parking spaces. This will allow for more funds and space to create residential units. Additionally, the regulations provide relief from this requirement when residential developments are in a transit zone.

On August 9, 2017, Manhattan Community Board 11 unanimously voted in favor, 30-0, to recommend approval of the application. On September 14, 2017, Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, also recommended approving the application.

On September 19, 2017, the City Planning Commission held a public hearing on the application, where five speakers testified in favor of the project. The Speakers included the The National Black Theater Victory Development LLC’s attorney, the architect, a representative of the developer, the chair of Community Board 11, and a representative of the Theather. No one spoke in opposition to the project.

The City Planning Commission found this project appropriate as complementary to the surrounding neighborhood. The Commission also encourages the applicant to adhere to the requested communication with Community Board 11 and the Borough President throughout the development’s progression.

CPC: National Black Theater (C170442ZMM; N170443ZRM; C170444ZSM) (Oct. 18, 2017)

By: Shelby Hoffman (Shelby is the CityLaw Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2017.)