November 29, 2023

Square Feet: After Legal War, a West Side Landmark May Rise

This year the longtime owner, Albert Bialek, wrested control of the Metro, an Art Deco landmark, after a protracted legal battle with the leaseholder, John R. Souto. Mr. Souto, whose firm filed for bankruptcy protection last year, had a 49-year lease with an option to buy the property, but defaulted on the terms, Mr. Bialek said. New York City marshals evicted him from the property in January.

Mr. Souto’s lawyer, Claude Castro of Claude Castro Associates, said he was appealing. “It is classic New York litigation, and it is nasty.”

Now Mr. Bialek is in discussions to convert the Metro into a new home for Wingspan Arts, a 10-year-old nonprofit group that provides arts education for some 6,000 students in New York City, New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The group is proposing a three-floor theater and education complex at the site, on Broadway between 99th and 100th Streets, with construction costs estimated at as much as $25 million, said the founder and president, Gary Bernstein. Costs would be partly paid by renting some of the space to live theater companies, in addition to using funds from private financing, and city, state and possibly federal grants.

Mr. Bialek and the arts group have been in talks since late March, but no deal has been signed. Unwilling to let more time lapse — the building has been without a tenant since late 2005 — Mr. Bialek, who is also a commercial broker, is speaking with other possible tenants.

The Metro Theater, whose facade is landmarked but whose interior is not, is a crucial piece to revamping the neighborhood, real estate brokers said.

“You used to cross 96th street and it would be this no-man’s land,” said Faith Hope Consolo, chairwoman of the retail leasing, marketing and sales division at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “But now you are starting to see upwardly mobile couples and families, and retailers recognize there is a lot potential.”

Urban Outfitters — which had a deal in 2009 to move into the Metro Theater that was derailed in the wake of the litigation with Mr. Souto — has opened a store across the street. Just to the south, at the corner of 99th Street and Broadway, Brooklyn Industries opened in November.

To the east, the mammoth Columbus Square development dominates the superblocks between 97th and 100th street, and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. When it is completed this summer, it will include 710 rental units, and more than 500,000 square feet of retail space, including a Whole Foods Market and a TJ Maxx.

“The blocks along Broadway in the 70s and 60s are very saturated, and it feels a little mall-like,” said Lexy Funk, the co-founder and chief executive of Brooklyn Industries, “while this area is more interesting.”

One recent morning, a stream of potential users was touring the cavernous theater space. “It is certainly interesting and may suit our needs,” said Sol A. Levitin, a member of a local Orthodox synagogue, Darkhei Noam, which is searching for a new, permanent home for the congregation. A rabbi for a Kabbalah center was also visiting, and representatives from the national AMC Theaters movie chain had also taken a tour, Mr. Bialek said.

In order to cover his bases and prepare for the possibility of a commercial tenant, Mr. Bialek filed plans with the New York City Department of Buildings for a three-level commercial space, totaling 15,270 square feet. The plans have not yet received approval.

To “maintain the integrity of this historic building,” Mr. Bialek said he was willing to rent only to a single-use commercial tenant and would not break up the theater for multiple users. He also has drafted design studies and preliminary plans to turn the space into a four-screen cinema or a three-screen complex for live theater.

Mr. Bialek, who said he is a limited partner or general partner in several properties in New York City, as well as Syracuse and Denver, is president of Albert Bialek Associates Inc., a real estate consulting firm. He is also the president of Seavest Management Corporation and general partner of Broadway Metro Associates, which owns the theater.

During the years Mr. Bialek was battling Mr. Souto, the vacant Metro, which was originally known as the Midtown despite its uptown location, drew the interest of several personalities. Perhaps the most unusual was Michael Oliva, an Upper West Side resident who began a campaign to turn the theater into a cultural center. He held fund-raisers and started a blog to further his efforts, but failed to ever contact Mr. Bialek. An e-mail to Mr. Oliva’s blog, whose last post was in February, was not returned.

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