SOUTH STREET SEAPORT — The Algonquin Seaport Theater shut down its freezing playhouse in the Pier 17 mall earlier this month, after trying in vain to get the mall's owner to turn on the heat, the theater said.
Tony Sportiello, the theater's artistic director, said that Howard Hughes Corp. refused to heat the 99-seat theater overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge and also wouldn't cut it a break on rent until the weather warmed up in the spring.
"The rehearsals were so cold, the actors were getting sick," Sportiello said Thursday. "We couldn't even work at our desks."
As Sportiello and his staff packed up the last of the theater's belongings last week, a thermometer showed that the 3,7000-square-foot space was just 40 degrees, he said.
Michael Piazzola, who manages the Seaport mall for Howard Hughes, did not deny that the space was cold, but he said it did have some heat. And if the theater wanted more heat, the theater, not the mall, was responsible for doing the construction, he said.
"The license we had [with the theater] required that we deliver the space in as-is condition, which we did," Piazzola said. "There was a system in place that they took in as-is condition."
The theater's departure comes as Howard Hughes, a company that owns malls and planned communities across the United States, is quietly proposing to tear down the Pier 17 mall and replace it with a modern, all-glass retail structure.
Given the plans, which Howard Hughes officials have privately shown to some Downtown community leaders, Sportiello said he was not entirely surprised that Howard Hughes didn't seem to want the theater to stay.
"It's bad timing," Sportiello said. "The uncertainty of what would happen [with the redevelopment] prevented [Howard Hughes] from really being able to commit."
The seven-year-old Algonquin Seaport Theater moved from Gramercy to Pier 17 in April 2011 and poured tens of thousands of dollars into renovating a formerly vacant retail space, Sportiello said.
The theater built an audience gradually over the summer and drew wide attention with a Derek Jeter-themed, one-act festival in the fall.
But during October's snowstorm, just as the theater was beginning to bring in money, Sportiello discovered that the heating in his space didn't work.
Howard Hughes contractors looked at the space and found that the heating pipes, which may not have been used for years, were too old to repair, Sportiello said. The only option was electric heat, which would have been too expensive for the landlord to install, Sportiello said.
Sportiello then offered to take the winter off, and to resume paying rent and using the space in the spring.
"We tried to work it out," he said. "[But] they wouldn't do that."
Sportiello said the small theater company "lost a great deal of money" on renovating the Pier 17 space, but he doesn't regret giving it a try, because he learned that there is demand for a theater in Lower Manhattan.
Now, Sportiello is searching for a new space Downtown and hopes to sign a lease in time to put on a play this April marking the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.
"We've really proven that we can get an audience down there," Sportiello said. "For the most part, it was a very positive experience."