The theater is more than doubling its capacity by building out into a vacant lot behind it that has stood unused for more than 80 years. Because it lies within a landmarked district, the exterior of the project needs the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Architect Frances Halsband's design for the back of the building features brick panels in front of a metal-backed layer of glass to provide "just the right level of light and reflectivity."
The ground floor is encased in an aluminum storefront with fritted or frosted glass, so that passersby can't see in and moviegoers can't see out, but activity and light can be seen from the sidewalk.
Halsband brought samples of the material to show the committee and meeting attendees, and explained that her goal was to blend in with the residential street without "trying to make it look like another old tenement."
"I think it would be a mistake to do a fake tenement building," she said. "At first glance, I hope you won't even notice that its there."
The meeting saw a huge turnout of local documentary filmmakers supporting the expansion, to the frustration of committee co-chair Chenault Spence who repeatedly tried to explain that the only question the committee was considering was the design of the exterior of the building, not whether the theater should be allowed to grow. (That question will be considered by the board's land use committee, before going before the city's Board of Standards and Appeals for approval.)
The people who came specifically to weigh in on the design included a man who said he lives across the street and supports Halsband's work.
"I'll be losing my light and air, but I'm for this," he said. "I think it's sensitive and to scale."
But Patricia Dylan, a former Village resident who moved to 26th Street, said the design was "an outrage."
"It's so disrepectful to the neighborhood, to the block," Dylan said.
The feedback from the committee varied.
Susan Gammie said she wanted the back of the building to reflect the structure's "raison d'etre."
She also rejected the design as not contextual enough, though her colleagues pointed out that Halsband was clearly drawing from the color and texture of the nearby buildings. In fact, committee member Jonathan Geballe said the design was actually "too contextual."
He hoped for a design "that sort of showed the personality of the theater," a desire echoed by Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman, who said he doesn't "necessarily love" the front facade of the theater, "but it does tell you, 'I'm a movie theater.'"
Geballe wondered "if there's some way to somehow indicate what's going on inside rather than a blank mute wall."
Bergman and Gammie also said Halband's design "talks too much," and is not being "friendly" enough.
Much of this discussion took place during the committee's executive session, which the public is welcome to observe but not participate in. Over warnings from other observers, Halsband interjected to ask for some clarity.
"I know this is totally out of order, but can I just ask a question?" she inquired pleasantly. "I'm hearing two different things. One of them is about making things smaller to fit in the street and the other is about making things bigger so it looks like a theater."
More specific feedback came from committee member and fellow architect Anita Brandt, who called for the use of wood. Others recommended creating some sort of visible divide on the exterior to fake the impression of two buildings the same width as the tenements on the block.
"What we're really doing is recommending back to the drawing board," concluded committee member Albert Bennett.
Halband's presentation can be viewed on the Community Board 2 website here.