After years of delays, the long-abandoned Victoria Theater site is close to getting financing for construction and redevelopment.
The Victoria Theater, a Harlem icon on 125th Street between Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boulevards, has been vacant since it closed in 1989. It’s now slated for redevelopment by Danforth Development Partners, LLC and Exact Capital.
According to Harlem Community Development Corporation President Curtis Archer, the 26-story, 360,000-square-foot complex will feature a 210-room hotel with a ballroom, mixed-income rental housing, a cultural arts center with a 199-seat theater, retail space, a restaurant and jazz club, and an underground parking lot.
“We’ve made tremendous progress and are, right now, in the throes of locking up a bank for a construction loan,” Exact Capital co-president Michael Callaghan said. “We’re looking to close on financing in the first quarter of 2013. We’ll have a 24-month build schedule, so the building should be complete by the first quarter of 2015.”
Some of the theater’s architectural features, including the front exterior, the lobby, and the staircase, will be preserved, while the original marquee and blade sign will be replicated. Danforth President Steve Williams said his company is collaborating with the State Historic Preservation Office on the project.
“They have inspected the site and they have come to meetings. We talked with them, and we have gotten their tentative approval on the project,” Williams said.
The Harlem CDC, which has owned the building since 1977, chose Danforth to redevelop the site in 2007. The newly developed space, which Archer said will cost $143 million, is also slated to include four arts organizations: the Harlem Arts Alliance, JazzMobile, the Classical Theater of Harlem, and the Apollo Theater Foundation, Inc.
“A number of institutions who had been advocates for Harlem, celebrating the history and culture, were getting displaced by increasing rental rates,” Williams said. “I felt that people who had been advocating for Harlem should be rewarded and be a part of the largest development project in Harlem, maybe even in its history. So we put together a team of a broad spectrum of great groups.”
Michael Unthank, a consultant for the Harlem Arts Alliance, said the organization is working to create a “collaborative cultural space” with other arts organizations.
“Right now, the consortium of arts organizations is working with the architects to organize the space,” Unthank said. “Because of HAA’s nature as a service organization, we will serve as the link to the grassroots Harlem art community.”
The redevelopment process started in late 2004, when the Harlem CDC, in conjunction with the Empire State Development Corporation, issued a request for proposals. There were 11 proposals, and Danforth’s was chosen after a three-year evaluation period.
“In the late 1990s, there was a study that found that the highest growth opportunity in northern Manhattan was culture and tourism,” Archer said. “Danforth’s proposal totally capitalized on that. The others didn’t incorporate cultural components.”
The project was delayed by a lack of funding after the 2008 financial crisis. But last year, Exact Capital offered additional funds, and the project immediately got off the ground.
Despite the funding problems and delayed start, Williams said he is hopeful about the project’s potential to create jobs.
“Harlem has had lots of residential projects, but it hasn’t had the injection of hundreds of new jobs that have the skill sets suitable for local residents,” he said.
The New York City Regional Economic Development Council’s five-year strategic plan identifies the Victoria Theater and Apollo Theater redevelopment projects as “catalysts for the further economic resurgence of Upper Manhattan.” Williams said that the project would create 576 construction jobs and 373 permanent jobs.
According to Archer, the project will also create 229 housing units—about half of them affordable housing.
“When we were first going down this road, we were just looking for condominiums. Then, the condo market tanked, and we shifted to affordable rental units,” Archer said. “Now, this is even better, because we can open up to the community.”
Williams said that Harlem resident have generally had positive opinions of the project, though some are still skeptical about how it will benefit the neighborhood.
“It may be bringing more jobs, but does it really bring mean more jobs for the community?” Harlem resident Bruce Bobbitt said. “It’s very hard to get a job now, so we keep striving for something better.”
But Zachary Riddick, who has lived in Harlem on and off for years, expressed more optimism. Glancing across 125th Street at the theater, he reminisced about spending all day there with a 75-cent movie ticket in the ’60s.
“I think it’s good that they’re getting the Victoria back to the days when I was a kid,” Riddick said.
“I think it should be preserved,” he added. “And I’m glad that they’re doing something positive.”