The IFC Center movie theater on Sixth Avenue (at West 3rd Street) is one step closer to an expansion that would double the number of screens and alleviate crowding on the sidewalk. This would be accomplished by expanding to an empty lot located behind it at 14-16 Cornelia Street. On Tuesday, the proposal went before the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the commissioners could have approved the upper floors, but wanted more work done at street level.
The IFC Center itself is the city’s oldest continuously operating movie theater. Prior to it becoming the IFC Center in 2005, it was the Waverly Theater and that had operated since 1937. Before that, it was J. Lamb Ecclesiastical Art Works and several churches. The lot on Cornelia Street has been vacant for decades and currently serves as a fire exit for the IFC.
The proposal is before the LPC because the site is within the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II, which was designated on June 22, 2010. Assuming the project is eventually approved by the LPC, it will also require approval from the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA).
The presentation was made by IFC counsel Paul Selver, who introduced IFC general manager John Vanco and architect Frances Halsband of Kliment Halsband Architects. Vanco noted that the IFC currently competes with the larger Angelika and Sunshine theaters down on Houston Street and doesn’t even have enough lobby space for its current programming, which leads to a lot of people milling about on Sixth Avenue.
The proposal would take the IFC’s five theaters seating a total of 480 people to 11 theaters seating a total of 948 people. The ground floor space along Cornelia Street would serve as the lobby for the IFC Center, though it would not open onto Cornelia Street. When it comes to the design of the façade on Cornelia Street, Halsband said they decided against having form follow function, instead trying to fit in with the streetscape. The cornice line (which would hide mechanical equipment) matches the neighboring structures and the color was designed to be as close a match as possible to the brick of neighboring 12 Cornelia Street. The upper floors contain pivoting red panels and semi-reflective glass panels. The ground floor would be aluminum and glass, but not transparent. Vanco said, “[We] don’t want to tease the viewer.”
The commissioners were not unanimously wild about the upper floors of the Cornelia Street façade. Commissioner Frederick Bland was worried about scale, noting that each window (for lack of a better description of the panels) was a full floor in height. Commissioner Roberta Washington called it an “opportunity wasted.” However, Commissioner Michael Goldblum saw it as an attempt to mediate between the function of the new building and the existing structures. Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said she was happy to see the IFC expand, the scale was perfect, punched windows would have been too literal, and it fits in quite well with the neighborhood. “[It] nods to a residential street,” she said.
So, despite unanimity, the commissioners could agree to approve the design of the upper floors. When it came to the ground floor, they could not agree to approve it. Of the design overall, Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said it was “very interesting,” but the “relationship to the street is wrong.” She suggested a restaurant along Cornelia Street. The reply to that was that it was programmatically unfeasible. There was a suggestion of more masonry on that level. The applicant will have to re-work the design and return to the LPC before it can be approved.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer supports the expansion of the IFC Center, but would like to see the full community board vote on it before the LPC acts. For its part, Community Board 2’s landmarks committee is supportive of the expansion, but not the entirety of the design.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) could not support the proposed expansion. It appreciates the limited height of the new proposed new structure, but not the design. “While we appreciated the variations in texture, depth, and materials, few were enthusiastic about the design’s aesthetic impact upon this very special block, while several felt more work, even a fundamental rethinking of the approach was needed to make it a worthy addition,” GVSHP’s Sarah Bean Apmann said.
The Central Village Block Assocation also voiced its disapproval of the design, calling it “not contextual.” A man who grew up on Cornelia Street lamented the loss of light that would occur with a new building on the vacant lot. Another area resident said it “will not work aesthetically.”
There was support for the expansion. A resident named Loren Stein said it was a good idea and the lot on Cornelia Street has been empty for too long. “Get behind the theater and help it succeed,” he said. Daniel Rosen, a resident for more than 40 years, supported the expansion, as did local filmmaker Deborah Shaffer.
Separately from this application, there is a proposal to reconfigure the Sixth Avenue entrance to the IFC Center. That, however, will be handled at the LPC staff level. That means the changes are not major enough to require a public hearing. You can see a rendering in the full presentation slides below.