Talk of arts complex at former WTC site

Idea: New York City Opera is interested in possibly collaborating with other cultural institutions.


NEW YORK -- A major arts complex could arise from the shell of the World Trade Center site.

New York City Opera officials have begun discussions with other cultural institutions and with government officials about creating an arts complex as the centerpiece of the rebuilding efforts.

They caution that their planning is in its early stages and that they have not made a decision to go forward. But they have attracted interest from the Joyce Theater (the Chelsea-based home of contemporary dance) in becoming involved in the project, which in one configuration would include a 2,200-seat opera house, a 900-seat dance space and possibly a museum.

The Guggenheim Museum has told developer Larry Silverstein, who controls the lease on the site, that it is open to participating in a cultural endeavor there, and opera officials said they would welcome a museum's participation. But the Guggenheim says it still plans to build a downtown branch designed by Frank Gehry on the East River.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said there is no money in the budget for optional projects, and the city is struggling to get the $20 billion promised by the federal government after Sept. 11.

Executives from City Opera planned to meet with John C. Whitehead, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., which is coordinating the rebuilding effort at ground zero. Whitehead's group has asked its advisory council on arts, education and tourism to make recommendations on cultural projects for the area by March 11.

$50 million

Bloomberg and Silverstein have spoken of their desires to have a strong cultural component on the 16-acre site, and the City Opera's principal benefactor, Robert Wilson, said last week that he would contribute $50 million to help build it.

But because a plan for the site is at least months off, with great uncertainties not only about what to put there but also about who should be involved in the decision-making, opera officials, despite their enthusiasm, see their idea as preliminary, and with an uncertain future.

"I think if it were part of a cultural center and the whole thing was done tastefully, it could really be a destination people [will] go to," said Irwin Schneiderman, board chairman of City Opera. "I personally find it intriguing, but we've got a long way to go."

Strong support

It is perhaps not surprising that City Opera, founded in 1944 to be what Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia called "the people's opera company," is willing to look downtown. Since 1966, it has been unhappily sharing the acoustically challenged New York State Theater at Lincoln Center with the New York City Ballet.

Linda Shelton, executive director of the Joyce Theater, said the Joyce was considering adding the downtown center to its current stage. "If there were other cultural attractions down there, it would be exciting to be part of a critical mass," she said.

The thought of a large cultural component on the site has strong support. John E. Zuccotti, the former deputy mayor who heads Brookfield Manhattan Properties, which owns the World Financial Center near the trade center site, is among the enthusiasts.

"Such a facility could be a living memorial," he said, "a national theater, something that reminds people of what happened there by having singers and actors celebrating life. There is a consensus emerging that that kind of use should be given every serious consideration. It's a question of working through the details."

Carl Weisbrod, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, predicted that there "probably will be a cultural component."

Wilson, who has pledged the $50 million to a new opera house, said he was "a little worried about the remoteness" of the site, and that a viable center would depend on convenient transportation and parking.

But he said, "If the management decides this will work, I'll go with that decision."

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