Representatives of Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater confirmed this week that it had purchased the Water Street Shops property, where the 7-Eleven convenience store is located, as its future home.
The pending sale had been a hot topic of the local rumor mill since shortly after the 15,000-square-foot building went on the market for $13.9 million in July. The building has seven other commercial units and four office suites.
Bay Street bought the property from Sag Harbor Building, LLC, through a separate organization, Friends of Bay Street & Sag Harbor Redevelopment. That group’s chairman, Adam Potter, said the closing took place Friday morning but that he was prohibited by the terms of the contract from disclosing the purchase price.
“This is beyond exciting,” said Bay Street’s executive director, Tracy Mitchell, who added that the theater, which has rented space at the foot of Long Wharf from Malloy Enterprises since its founding in 1991, has been searching for a permanent home for years. “This means Bay Street will be around forever.”
“It’s really a dream come true to be able to be a part now from the ground up of creating a new building and a new space,” said Scott Schwartz, the theater’s artistic director. “There is clearly a thirst and hunger in our community for live theater and performance art.”
Sag Harbor Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy also lauded the announcement. “This is huge news and we couldn’t be happier,” she said. “We are thrilled because this means Bay Street will stay in Sag Harbor and remain an important economic driver and cultural center.”
The village and Southampton Town had considered purchasing the property with money from the Community Preservation Fund to expand the new John Steinbeck Waterfront Park, which is to the north of the Water Street Shops, but had abandoned those plans because of the cost. Nonetheless, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman has said the town would be willing to discuss with Bay Street a deal using CPF money “if there is land left over that would be a logical addition to Steinbeck Park.”
Mr. Potter said it was too early to know if that would be the case, but he stressed that the organization would work with the village to protect access to the park. “Whatever we build or design there is for the public,” he said. “We don’t want to just make this exclusively for people going to the theater.”
Sag Harbor Trustee James Larocca, who was instrumental in obtaining Steinbeck Park for the village, urged caution.
“This is the beginning of what will inevitably be a process that should include the entire community,” he said. “We all have a stake in the future of the waterfront. Community input as this goes forward is absolutely essential.”
The Bay Street officials said that, as of yet, no formal plans have been prepared for the site, but a press release accompanying the announcement said the theater hoped to break ground on the new facility by mid-2021, with an anticipated completion date of 2023. The new center will include “multiple theaters, including a main stage theater that will retain the well-known intimacy of the original venue, while offering additional fixed and flexible spaces to accommodate different configurations keyed to artistic vision and production needs,” the release stated.
The facility will include additional space for the organization’s year-round educational programs for children and adults, a center for new work development, and other features that will allow Bay Street to produce more original works and engage in more co-productions and partnerships, Mr. Schwartz said.
“We are in the process of looking at architects, looking at theater consultants, acoustical engineers, lighting designers,” Mr. Potter said. “After 30 years of renting a space and reconfiguring a space that wasn’t intended as a theater, we are now able to look at it from the ground up.”
Ms. Mitchell said having the ability to expand programming was key. “We have been growing at such a rate that ultimately, we have outgrown the space,” she said of the current theater that saw past incarnations as a night club, roller rink, and World War I-era torpedo factory.
She said the theater scrambles to find space for summer educational programs such as theater camp and to let outside groups use its space. “We only have a certain amount of time available,” she said. “We give the space as often as we can to local groups so they can have those lectures, performances, or fundraisers.”
Ms. Mitchell said Bay Street enjoyed a cordial relationship with its landlord, Patrick Malloy. “Contrary to what everyone likes to write about Pat, he has been very good to us,” she said. But she said, as a nonprofit, it is hard to plan two or three years into the future without knowing what the terms of a future lease will be.
Mr. Potter said the Friends of Bay Street was created expressly to focus on the new project and leave day-to-day operations to the theater’s board and staff.
“The board really needs to focus on current operations, especially given the pandemic,” he said. “The new organization is designed to acquire the land, help with the planning, raise money, and oversee the construction.”
He would not say whether additional land purchases may be involved in the project.
“There are a lot of rumors out there,” he said. “We have heard the rumors, too. Would we eventually like to get more space for theater housing? Absolutely. But right now we are just solely focused on building our new theater.”
Earlier this month, the Sag Harbor Village Board adopted a moratorium on major developments along its waterfront as it waits for a team of planners to finish a study and propose changes to the zoning code to help the village maintain public access to the waterfront and encourage development that protects the waterfront’s character and charm.
Ms. Mitchell said she thought the village and the theater were on the same page. “They feel as we do that we really want to ensure that those water views are maintained,” she said. A public theater would be a more suitable use at the gateway to the park than “another set of condos or stores,” she added.
“The overall goal is to make sure the public has access to the water,” Mr. Potter said. “If it was a private developer, they would not have to open it up and give access to the water.”
Ms. Mulcahy said she was confident a good result would be achieved once the village updates its code and said it was important that the village honor its past while retaining its place in the present and looking ahead to the future. “We don’t want to be the Main Street at Disney World,” she said, referring to a common planning tendency to mimic historic styles. “Our history did not end with the whaling days. We have beautiful buildings from the 1800s and 1900s, and we will have beautiful buildings built in the 2000s,” she said. “We just have to find the right balance.”