New Paltz village residents could find a professional black box theater in their midst, if they show enough support for the idea. Harry Lipstein, owner of Water Street Market, will be proposing just such a venue for the property at 12 Main Street; it’s on the April 18 agenda of the village planning board, according to Mayor Tim Rogers. Projects in New Paltz get tested with a level of rigor that can be off-putting to some professionals; Zero Place developer David Shepler has recounted warnings he received not to try building in New Paltz at all. Moreover, a proposal for an arts cinema on the same parcel of land was met with stiff resistance from neighbors on Wurts Avenue in 2012. Lipstein, who shepherded Water Street Market through that process in the 1990s and is aware of the challenges, explained his willingness to try by saying, “I am certifiably nuts.”
While this proposal, like the ill-fated Water Street Cinema, is theatrical in nature, it’s a very different project. In 2012, developer Howard Sachar proposed 360 seats and four screens; Lipstein, because he’s focusing solely on live acting, says that shows would only have room to seat 50-70 people, depending on configuration. Recalling the movie idea, he said that “‘wouldn’t it be cool to have an arts cinema’ morphed into two gentlemen trying to do something way too large for that space. I stopped it,” he said, “because it didn’t scale well for the community.” A black box theater would be more appropriate because it’s smaller, he feels, while still bringing in the culture and buzz that supporters of the cinema idea loved in the first place; it would create more of a “sense of community” than a movie house would have.
Lipstein is passionate about the idea of bringing live theater to New Paltz, in part because in recent years he’s rediscovered his own love for acting. He hopes to model this project on the Urbanite Theater, which he built in Sarasota, Florida. Like that space, the New Paltz theater would be a nonprofit; he does not expect it to make money. “The only satisfaction I would get in return would be for giving a gift to the community,” he said.
He first revisited the idea of some kind of theater two years ago; then-planning board chairman Maurice Weitman “inspired me,” he said, and he pitched an idea for two small movie theaters based on the notion that “bigger is not better,” at just 45 feet wide and 900 square feet each. “That doesn’t exist in the world,” Lipstein said, because making them profitable would be challenging. It didn’t go over well with the neighbors on Wurts, one of whom, Jonathan Litton, is now a member of the planning board. “It was not my time to give a half-a-million-dollar gift to the village,” he said.
Since then, “My excitement about acting has increased.” In the 18 months since the Urbanite has opened, it’s had eleven professional productions, he said, emphasizing the “professional” part: “Everyone gets paid,” Lipstein explained, from the actors and director to the stage crew and technicians. He imagines a time when high school and college students can earn skills and credit assisting on productions that are typically very stripped-down, with minimalist sets and no more than four cast members in total. In Sarasota, “It’s been a rage,” which he says has to do with the fact that it’s live theater. “Live creates more of a sense of community, a living organism,” he said. “Nothing like it exists in the Hudson Valley. There was a time when live theaters were in every community. They all need one, to speak for their community.”
This new project, designed by architect Richard Miller, appears to have incorporated neighbors’ earlier concerns to some extent. The Water Street Cinema would have topped off at 258 feet above sea level, which neighbors feared would block their views of the ridge; this smaller-scale idea would be more than 16 feet shorter according to Miller’s plans. Lipstein said it would actually be just eight feet above grade, appearing like “a storage shed.” The theater will be owned by a different legal entity than Water Street Market, but there will be a formal agreement allowing for shared parking; there is ample space in the evenings, he said, but that agreement is just a backup plan. In truth, he expects that anyone driving to a show will park in a municipal lot and patronize local restaurants and other businesses before and after the entertainment.
Digging more into the parking issue, Lipstein — himself a trained architect — waxed philosophical, speaking about how New Paltz is on the cutting edge of the “new urbanism” which creates that sense of community by concentrating where the people are. It’s happened largely by accident in New Paltz, a confluence of factors such as the flood plain west of the Wallkill and the large land purchases by the Smiley Brothers in the 19th and 20th centuries. He thinks New Paltz could be a community of “complete streets” in more than just name, perhaps one day having bicycle lanes in the middle of Main Street a la Davis, California. That kind of density would result in even slower automobile traffic, which he believes is a good thing. On a practical level, he said that if a 60-seat show was sold out, and the patrons arrived two to a car, there would be more than enough parking at Water Street Market to handle it. There are frequently more attendees than that at the free Monday night movies during the summer, he said, which have “zero impact” on nearby roads.
The kicker, however, is that Lipstein has no interest in forcing this notion down the throats of community members. He wants to know that it’s supported, or he says he will not move forward. “A lot of people might say hey, I want that here, but then go back to watching football,” he said. To make this black box theater happen, Lipstein is looking for those in favor to show up, speak out and let village officials know what they think. “People need to say if they want it.” When this proposal is first considered by planning board members in April, one thing that’s certain is that Lipstein will be listening.
One thing Lipstein believes he has going for him is an understanding of the New Paltz community. For the first several years, Water Street Market was largely considered a place for tourists, he said, but now he’s had lifelong residents say things like, “I couldn’t imagine this community without it.” Turning that market into a community hub was part of the plan all along, Lipstein said, although he credits Theresa Fall for making it happen with events like weekly outdoor movies and the chalk festival and amenities like free loaner bicycles. Fall’s efforts, however, have been built upon the market itself, which was designed with community space in mind. In Lipstein’s opinion, the right project will not only get through the often challenging review process, but come to be embraced by community members.