After a year of shuttered theatres and a desolate Times Square, Broadway opened back up last month in New York City. “Waitress” and “Hadestown” were the first two shows to open, with “Hamilton” following shortly after. Now, new real estate projects in the district are gearing up for opening in 2022.
One project is unlike the rest, though. On West 47th Street, real estate developer L&L Holding Company is working to renovate the neighborhood’s historic Palace Theater, one of the oldest theaters in Times Square. The goal is to raise it by 30 feet above street level. It’s part of TSX Broadway, a $2.5 billion project that is completing a mixed-use building. The developers want to appeal to the tourists that might return to Times Square.
The project, at 1568 Broadway, is a retail space, hotel, outdoor performance stage and dining venture. TSX Broadway has powered the building with a hydraulic jack and structural steel shoring post to elevate the historic Palace Theatre this fall.
Inside, the actual theatre will see a $50 million renovation of the 1,700 seat, 105-year-old theater, so it can be used in the years to come.
According to Robert Israel, the Executive President of L&L Holding, the team is in many stages at the moment.
“We’re not doing things in a linear manner but a parallel manner; it means that we’re doing demolition at the same time as foundation work and structural work,” he said. “We started with a building that’s 47 stories tall. We removed all the stories, down to 16 floors, we have completed our demolition but have ongoing structural demolition for the theatre.”
Right now, the theatre is at its original elevation. By year end or soon thereafter, it will be raised. The Palace Theatre is a landmark, located at 1564 Broadway at West 47th Street in Midtown. It was one of the major vaudeville theatres from 1913 to 1929, and is still functioning today (mainly for musicals), with over 1,600 seats, making it one of Broadway’s largest theaters.
There’s the obvious risk of damage when it comes to raising a five-story theater.
“We need to make sure it moves the way we want it to move,” Israel said.
The theater is going to be controlled by hydraulic machinery.
“We need to lift it in a way where it’s raised half an inch an hour,” he explained. “We can check if it’s moving in the right direction, so it doesn’t crack.”
At half an inch an hour, the theater is expected to be fully raised in 30 days from the hydraulic pressure raise.
“We have monitoring equipment installed inside the theatre and crack monitoring, electronic equipment that monitors cracks, lasers that allows us to check if it’s going to be raised in the right directions,” Israel said. “We have created a number of protocols with our team of consultants to assure it is lifted the way we want it.”
L&L consulted with Viber Analysis for their monitoring equipment. The project is designed by PBDW Architects, Mancini Duffy and Perkins Eastman. It’s being developed by L&L, alongside Maefield Development and Fortress Investment Group.
The theatre will have guide rails installed on the structural elements, to help keep it in place. The potential cracking is considered “cosmetic,” and “not be considered as a failure of engineering or implementation but simply a reality of how historic plaster assemblies would react to the application of forces never experienced before.” Every day, the lift will be monitored for any signs of damage.
As the project is fully underway, the construction team had to partially demolish the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton, while preserving part of the structure’s steel frame for a major refurbishment that will help hold the structure of the new tower.
The Palace Theatre’s restoration ensures it remains a usable destination for years to come. But the biggest challenge with the project is the preparation of the theater lift, Israel noted. The team installed structural components, including 27 hydraulic lifting posts that are 48-inch-wide steel canisters with hydraulic equipment that will push the theatre up.
“The theater is sitting on the new foundation, in order for it to be lifted,” he said.
This mixed-use building’s outer shell will be covered with an LED screen (likely for ads, much like the rest of the theatre district), which L&L calls the highest resolution 18,000-square-foot podium sign in the theatre district.
“It will be the most clearly visible sign you’ll see in Times Square,” Israel claimed, which is a tall order to match.
Why even raise such a historic, old theatre, anyway? Retail. Ground-level foot traffic is a highly coveted (and expensive) space in a tourist hub like Times Square. Over 90,000-square-feet of experiential retail space is golden, not to mention rare.
Israel explained that when L&L got involved with the project in pre-pandemic times, the foot traffic at that exact corner was estimated to be over 400,000 people a day. That figure has changed, since the pandemic obviously, “but we are seeing those numbers rising,” he said.
According to the Times Square Alliance, the foot traffic is back to 300,000 people a day.
“We’re on a good upward trend right now, with more companies coming back to work, tourism has already returned, I’m hoping within the next 12 months we’ll be back to normal,” Israel said.
The retail space is more than just at street level but continues up on the building’s 9th and 10th floors. The game changer, to Israel, is the performance space. “That will separate us from any property in Times Square because of our ability to have indoor performances and broadcasts and opening that to the public,” he said.
The expected start date for the hydraulic lift of the Palace Theatre is yet to be determined. The team will have 40 workers onsite during the lift (they’re working with Urban Foundations Engineering). There is no opening date yet, but Israel estimates the fall of 2022 as a ballpark range.
But what about the e-commerce boom we saw during the pandemic? Do we really need more retail space in mixed-use buildings? It’s a complex issue, especially in New York City. Many visitors could come for the entertainment, rather than shopping, or the history.
“The theater is already a landmark in itself, that’s why we’re looking to preserve it,” Israel said. “Our property is going to become an iconic property. We’re creating an iconic performance space with a stage and the rest of our retail space that will separate us from the rest of Times Square.”
Some might come to see this historic theatre 30 feet above street level.
“Nothing has done this before, or anything like it,” said Israel. “Hotels and retail in Times Square are really popular, and it’s the largest signage district in the world. We put all of those together into our property. We will have revenue from all those things that make up the development.”