Business / Culture

Legendary dance group gone from BankNote

Courtesy of BAAD!

Arthur Aviles and Charles Rice-Gonzalez in front of Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance’s new headquarters at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Westchester Square after 15 years in the BankNote Building.

Landlord tells BAAD! they’re not in building’s longterm plans

The iconic Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance has moved out of its theater in the BankNote Building after a highly acclaimed 15-year run, saying that Taconic Investment Partners, the development company that owns the landmark building, priced them out.

The group’s co-founders, author Charles Rice-Gonzalez and choreographer and dancer Arthur Aviles, charge that the white shoe firm has failed to keep a promise it made when it bought the building five years ago, to maintain the building’s character as a mecca for the arts in Hunts Point.

At the time, the building’s new owners hired Rice-Gonzalez as a publicist who issued a press release in which Charles Bendit, co-founding partner of Taconic, said “We look forward with great enthusiasm to establishing a major cultural focal point for New York and the region, with emphasis on the visual and performing arts.”

Rice-Gonzalez says BAAD! asked Taconic earlier this year to extend its lease, which was set to expire in two years, but that the company instead offered a take-it-or-leave-it one-year extension at twice the current rent—a rate far beyond what the dance group could afford.

“They said they had other plans for the building,” Rice-Gonzalez said.

But when BAAD! found a more accommodating landlord last month near Westchester Square and asked to be released from the lease, Taconic insisted the group pay the next six months’ rent or face legal consequences. Later, Taconic backed down, Rice-Gonazlez said, adding, “It’s surprising they kept treating us like unwanted children.”

BAAD! first moved into the 104-year-old landmark building in 1998 as the arts were beginning to flourish in Hunts Point. Around that time, The Point CDC was opening its doors on Garrison Avenue to provide public space for arts and culture programs.

Recruited by The Point and attracted by low rents, numerous artists, musicians and sculptors rented studios in the BankNote. Almost all have moved out since Taconic took over and raised the rent.

In 2008 Taconic and real estate firm Denham Wolf bought the 400,000 square-foot brick behemoth for $32 million, assuring Community Board 2 and worried local artists they would work with them. Soon after, they embarked on a $20 million renovation to upgrade the building, which had fallen into disrepair over the years.

BAAD!’s relationship with the new landlords was not always chilly. In an event to celebrate Taconic’s purchase of the building, the firm invited Aviles to perform a dance piece.

But the recession set in soon after, and the company struggled to find renters.

Rice-Gonzalez and Aviles say their departure is part of a disturbing trend in which wealthy real estate firms across the city are driving out shoestring-budgeted arts organizations that serve neighborhood needs to make room for higher-paying businesses and agencies that don’t.

In a press release, Aviles called the move, “painful,” adding that “the conditions were created so that we had to leave. What are the conditions that allow real estate developers to continue to have the power to displace the arts and artists?”

In 2011, Taconic and Denham Wolf announced they had agreed to a long-term lease with the city’s Human Resources Administration, which will move into the building next year. The agency, which will move from its current location in Mott Haven, provides food stamps, family services and HIV services, among others.

In a press release last month, Taconic boasted that the building “has quickly become a hub for creative companies, non-profits, community organizations and schools by providing a unique combination of professional affordable space in the burgeoning South Bronx community.”

Ellen Israel, the director of the building’s leasing agency, JRT Realty Group, wrote “The market for quality, well-located office space in the Bronx is incredibly tight right now,” adding that “With HRA opening its doors next year, there is a great opportunity for other service providers to locate themselves next to one of the city’s largest agencies.”

Some longtime neighborhood organizations have fared better than the displaced artists. The environmental group Sustainable South Bronx and the John V. Wildcat Academy remain as tenants. Urban Health Plan will soon be moving in.

It’s not all bad for BAAD! It has moved into a recently-renovated theater which can seat 90, in a gothic revivalist building on the grounds of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Westchester Avenue.

“We didn’t want to be in the position of being homeless or nomadic,” Rice-Gonzalez said, explaining why the group chose to leave the BankNote with two years left on its lease.

Westchester Square’s gain is Hunts Point’s loss, said Carey Clark, The Point CDC’s arts director.

“They made Hunts Point a cultural district. It’s a huge loss for this neighborhood,” said Clark, who left the BankNote studio she had worked out of for years when Taconic took over and the era of artist-friendly rents ended.

Rice-Gonzalez said the politicians who hailed the arrival of the building’s owners five years ago have a responsibility to protect neighborhood arts groups.

“This is an opportunity for them to do something,” he said. “There has to be some kind of systemic change.”

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  1. Pingback: BAAD! Blood in Hunts Point | Voices of NY

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