HARLEM —The city says it will begin leasing out a vacant theater to community groups in East Harlem after complaints that the space has stood empty for almost two years while a lease with a new operator is negotiated.
The move comes after a group of artists announced plans to stage a performance protest Wednesday in front of the 2,800-square-foot Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, located at East 106th Street and Lexington Avenue.
The artists will perform works that would have been presented on the theater's stage if it was open.
"I'm angry. They promised us 1,700 hours of programming and nothing has gone down in two years. Why not sign a contract?" asked Eugene Rodriguez, chair of the Puerto Rican Intercultural Drama Ensemble or PRIDE.
The city's Economic Development Corporation declined to renew the lease of Taller Boricua, which translates to "Puerto Rican Workshop," in September 2010. East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said she had received numerous complaints about the group not fully utilizing the space and not having clear guidelines for rentals.
Taller Boricua founders Fernando Salicrup and Nitza Tufiño said the theater needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs such as soundproofing and that's why it wasn't in operation as often as it could have been.
After a request for proposals, EDC chose The Julio de Burgos Arts Alliance, a consortium of three groups that included East River North Renewal, Los Pleneros de la 21, and The Hispanic Federation, which provides grants to Latino nonprofits, to run the theater.
But since that announcement in late November 2011, EDC has been unable to come to a lease agreement with the consortium.
EDC officials blamed the failure on a variety of factors, including staff and leadership changes at the Hispanic Federation and EDC and the impact of Hurricane Sandy on EDC projects around the city.
"NYCEDC is committed to providing increased cultural, arts, and community programming at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center in East Harlem, and we continue to make progress towards reaching an agreement that will allow us to achieve this important goal," said EDC spokesman Nick Kelly.
"In the interim, local groups will have the opportunity to rent space until a final lease is signed."
EDC officials said details of the arrangement are forthcoming.
But local groups remain skeptical.
Marina Ortiz, of East Harlem Preservation, one of the groups that organized the press conference, said the city wasted 18 months of valuable time that could have been used for programming.
Under the new agreement, the theater is supposed to produce 1,700 hours of programming at the center during the first year, including more than 700 hours in the theater space.
"We still want and need answers. What are the prices? When will the space be open? I'll be happy when the doors open. That would be a great start," said Ortiz.
Rodriguez said Taller Boricua should have been left in charge during the transition.
"They handpicked the group and still no contract in two years? Why are they blaming Hurricane Sandy? I live a block from the East River and didn't get a flood in my house," said Rodriguez
Mark-Viverito said she shared her "community’s frustration with this extensive delay," and pushed for the theater to be rented out until an agreement is reached.
"That decision is one I support and encouraged. But I still stand firm in my support for the vision and....execution of the plan laid out by the Julia de Burgos Arts Alliance," she added.
Rodriguez and Ortiz said a bigger issue of community control over its institutions is also at stake.
Ortiz wishes the process of choosing a group to run the theater had been done differently and that she was concerned about the Hispanic Federation's cultural programming chops.
For Rodriguez, EDC is not thinking in broad enough terms when it comes to using the arts for economic development.
Ideally, Rodriguez said he'd like to see a plan to use the Julia de Burgos space along with three other underutilized theaters in East Harlem to create a Latino theater district.
"It means jobs and economic development for the Latino community," he said.
Rodriguez said there are many groups like his capable of producing enough quality theater to keep the seats filled and the money flowing.
"I have produced seven hit off Broadway plays. They weren't reviewed so no one has ever said they were bad," Rodriguez joked.
"In all seriousness, we do serious theater and serious theater can provide serious economic development for East Harlem."