Mixed Use

By Patrick Hedlund

All the world’s a stage

An established improv comedy club plans to open an outpost in the East Village in the space formerly occupied by the Pioneer Theater.

The Upright Citizens Brigade, currently with locations in Chelsea and Hollywood, Cal.,, got the approval of Community Board 3’s S.L.A. Licensing Committee last week in its bid to obtain a liquor license for 155 E. Third St., just off Avenue A.

The space was previously home to the Two Boots Pioneer Theater, local impresario Phil Hartman’s single-screen, independent movie house that, after a decade of operation, was forced to close in November due to rising rents.

The committee greeted U.C.B.’s application with relatively open arms for an area already saturated with nightlife establishments, and local advocates also responded positively to the news.

“In a neighborhood losing its performance spaces, U.C.B. will serve the E.V. by preserving the Pioneer space as a theater,” stated Rob Hollander, of Lower East Side Residents for Responsible Development, in an e-mail, while simultaneously questioning whether U.C.B.’s mainstream affiliation would bode well for the fringe-artsy neighborhood.

“I’m so attached to the physical space of the theater, so the thought that it was going to get gutted and turned into some clothing boutique was sad,” said Hartman, who also operates the Two Boots chain of pizzerias throughout the city. “I think it’s fantastic, and I really hope it works out,” he said.

That empty feeling

Office vacancy rates have always acted as a bellwether for the commercial real-estate market, so it’s not surprising that the city’s year-end tallies reflect the sting of the current recession.

The overall vacancy rate for the submarkets that make up Midtown and Downtown sat at 8 percent to close out 2008, according to the fourth-quarter report from brokerage Cushman and Wakefield. Midtown South, which extends from Chelsea to Soho, fared better overall, posting a 7.1 percent vacancy rate compared to Midtown’s 8.5 percent rate.

The area’s Hudson Square/West Village submarket saw the highest vacancy rate of any neighborhood in the fourth quarter, with 16.2 percent of its office stock unoccupied. The Madison/Union Square submarket followed at 5.9 percent; Chelsea at 5.1 percent; Soho at 4.5 percent, and Greenwich Village/Noho at 3.6 percent.

Midtown South’s overall vacancy figure climbed 2.4 percent from 2007, and the area “remains the tightest market in Manhattan as the vacancy rate is at the bottom of equilibrium.” The report also stated that the market recorded one of the weakest years of leasing activity since 1992.

However, the area’s asking rents continued to increase — jumping 15.4 percent year over year, to $54.09 per square foot — “due to lack of inventory and relatively constant demand from tenants looking at alternatives to the high rents in Midtown,” according to the report.

Hanson’s hardship

The foundering economy has forced one restaurant company to close a pair of popular area nightspots in Soho and the Meatpacking District.

Fiamma, the critically acclaimed Italian restaurant on Spring St. in Soho, shuttered last week and will be converted into an event space, announced owner Stephen Hanson. The other casualty is the swanky subterranean lounge Level V, in the Triangle Building on Hudson St. near 14th St. in the Meatpacking District. Hanson also announced the closures of a restaurant on the Upper West Side and another in Chicago as part of the move in the face of tightening times across almost every industry.

Hanson’s company, B.R. Guest Restaurants, operates more than 15 dining establishments in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. But the six-year-old Fiamma, which earned a three-star review from The New York Times just this year, represented one of Hanson’s most celebrated ventures.

“The end of the partnership between B.R. Guest and [Fiamma] Chef Fabio Trabocchi is an amicable one, as the current economic climate does not support such an upscale operation like Fiamma,” a company statement read.

The restaurant’s three-floor Spring St. townhouse will now serve private functions, featuring menus from existing B.R. Guest restaurants.

Bank St. brownstone

The ongoing renovation of an ailing brownstone on Bank St. in the West Village has created some questions about the structural integrity of similar properties on the block.

The building at 15 Bank St., which sits on a leafy stretch between Waverly Place and W. Fourth St. in the Greenwich Village Historic District, started undergoing demolition work in August after the Department of Buildings deemed conditions of the property dangerous and allowed the renovations to proceed.

The mix of water-soluble lime in the mortar between the structure’s bricks led to some erosion, said construction project manager Roger Surcio, forcing the city to approve of the gutting in the protected district as part of redevelopment. While lime is a typical ingredient found in mortar for structures built in the last century, Surcio said that many buildings undergo renovations and repointings throughout the years to improve past work.

“All of these buildings are 150 years old,” said Marilyn Dorato, secretary of the Greenwich Village Block Associations, noting that this particular brownstone was constructed at the same time and manner as similar ones on the block. “There’s the potential that a lot of these [buildings’] fronts, in a relative period of time, are going to have structural problems.”

Dorato added that neighbors have also been miffed at the ongoing noise related to the work, and that some had questions about the planned appearance of the new building.

However, Surcio — whose company is working with Tribeca’s Steven Harris Architects on the project — maintained that the design would be more authentic than its most recent iterations.

“What we’re going to do will actually be truer to the original than what was here before,” he said.