Town Okays $4 Million Deal To Preserve Sag Cinema Use and Art Deco Façade

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Sag Harbor Cinema project architect Allen Kopelson addresses the Southampton Town Board on Tuesday. Michael Heller photos

Despite opposition from the town’s Community Preservation Advisory Board and three of 11 speakers at a hearing, supporters of the non-profit Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center erupted in cheers Tuesday night in Southampton Town Hall when the town board voted unanimously to spend $4 million in Community Preservation Funds (CPF) to buy a historic preservation easement and a restrictive use easement from the SagCinemaLLC, the owner of the .16-acre parcel at 90 Main Street where the Sag Harbor Cinema once stood.

The easements will prevent changes to the art deco façade of the Sag Harbor Cinema once its reconstruction is complete and bar any future use of the property other than a cinema arts center. The use easement also will require ticket prices for Southampton Town residents to be 20 percent below the going rate for tickets at commercial theatres in the region.

The CPF deal will be the largest single source of funding for the project, which has cost its sponsor, the Sag Harbor Partnership, $8 million to buy the property and will cost about $6 million to complete construction, hire staff and begin programming.

Tommy John Schiavoni looks on as Sag Harbor Partnership Vice President April Gornik addresses the town board in favor of allowing CPF monies to be allocated to the renovation of the Sag Harbor Cinema.

“I love the Sag Harbor Cinema sign and façade,” April Gornik, chair of the cinema campaign, told the board during the hearing. “But the greatest part of this opportunity is the use easement to me because it would insure that the Sag Harbor Cinema will remain a cinema in perpetuity, a fundamental passion behind all of our efforts for the last two and a half years to save it. We have longed for this measure of security and besides being a huge aid to our financial efforts, a use easement will guarantee that the cinema will remain the beating heart of Main Street Sag Harbor.”

Seven other speakers urged the board to vote in favor of the proposal but there was loud applause when three speakers opposed the proposal, including Robert Angrig, chairman for the past 10 years of the town’s Community Preservation Advisory Board, which reviews all CPF acquisitions. He said the 12-member panel, of which he’s been a member since it was created with the passage of the CPF law 20 years ago, has never seen a similar proposal and voted unanimously “to decline it in strong terms.”

“We felt it was very creative and inventive” to use CPF money to extinguish the commercial potential of a downtown property but this is “the first time anything like this had been done and we were opposed. The historic easement on a building that didn’t exist literally was also a very dangerous precedent.”

Sag Harbor Partnership President Nick Gazzolo addresses the town board on Tuesday.

Mr. Angrig said he had been to the Sag Harbor Cinema many times and loved it “but I do not think it’s appropriate to use CPF funds” to rebuild it as a cinema arts center. “We respect your efforts but don’t think our funds are the appropriate sources.”

His comments prompted loud applause from the meeting room, which was packed with people there for several hearings on topics that spanned the Town of Southampton. There was also applause when a woman from East Quogue, who told the board the cinema is “already protected by numerous historic district laws.”

She called on the board to use the money to bring public water to Main Street in East Quogue or to buy the Belle-Aire Cove motel property near Shinnecock Canal.” The audience also applauded for a man who said the proposal was “not a good use of CPF funds” and a dangerous precedent. “As far as using it to reconstruct a building, I’m adamantly opposed.”

When it was time for the board to vote on the proposal later during the board’s meeting, each board member spoke out in support. “I think this is not only an appropriate use of CPF funds, I think it is an excellent use of CPF funds,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “This is an iconic, historic building, often photographed,” in an “iconic downtown” that is “what everybody wants their downtown to look like.”

The cinema project is not just about the building but the whole downtown of Sag Harbor “and how it blends with other buildings,” he added. “To have a cultural center is a wonderful thing; to be able to have the CPF assist making it affordable and keep it in perpetuity I think is a wonderful use of CPF funds.”

The CPF program “is not just about open space,” he added. It’s also about “recreation access, farmland; historic preservation is a big piece of it. We probably don’t spend enough on historic preservation,” which is “part of our character, who we are as a community. This is money well spent and it doesn’t break the bank. We’ll have money for other projects,” Mr. Schneiderman said, because the “CPF is a tremendous engine for preservation of all aspects of our community.”

Councilperson Christine Scalera called the theatre “iconic to that area.” The “CPF allows us to preserve community character and the cinema is an integral part of the character of this community.”

Councilperson Julie Lofstad said she loved “the affordable component” of the plan and the “out-of-the box thinking” for programming, which includes high-tech virtual reality.

Councilman John Bouvier said he “agreed with my fellow board members completely.”

During the hearing, architect Allen Kopelson told the board the front of the building will be up in about three weeks and its restored “Sag Harbor” sign will be mounted in the spring. Going over details of the reconstruction, he said original architectural drawings will be used to duplicate the façade; fabric wall covering will be recreated for the interior; three art deco exit signs salvaged from the fire will be reinstalled and two more will be copies; two original light fixtures and seven will be copies; and “most important,” he said, the “end panels” for the seating has been salvaged and will be used, along with “eight or 10” original seats. The others will be duplicates. The interior “will be missing the aroma,” a musty smell the old cinema used to have. “We’re going to great lengths to try to eliminate it and we have found a way to do that,” Mr. Kopelson said.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”