Long Wharf Theater stays by its namesake

After contemplating a move to downtown New Haven in the dim light of the nation’s economic downturn, the Long Wharf Theatre has instead opted to renovate its current home.

The Tony Award-winning regional theater near New Haven Harbor, known for its imaginative revivals and premieres, has extended its lease to 2022. Since January 2009, the theater and the New Haven Office of Economic and Business Development had planned to relocate the theater to a new building on a 4.5-acre site on George Street by 2012. But the developer and state’s fiscal constraints slowed and then halted the progress of their endeavor.

The Long Wharf Theatre, a New Haven mainstay, will undergo renovations rather than relocate to a new site as was originally planned.
Long Wharf Theatre
The Long Wharf Theatre, a New Haven mainstay, will undergo renovations rather than relocate to a new site as was originally planned.

The theater had initially received a state grant of $750,000 to determine the feasibility of the project. The proposal yielded to the recession when the developer that had won the contract, Northland Investment Corporation, decided to drop the endeavor because of financial concerns. Additionally, the state was unable to deliver a promised $30 million to aid the project. Throughout these events, fundraising efforts for a relocation progressed slowly.

The Long Wharf Theatre has now resolved to stay at its current home.

“We are going to be here and we can fully commit to … improving the building, to the extent we can, to make it a better place to produce and watch theater,” said Long Wharf managing director Ray Collum.

Steven Scarpa, director of marketing and communications, said Long Wharf has hired a fundraising consultant based in East Haven called the Giving Collaborative and the New Haven architecture firm Gregg Wies & Gardner.

Likely renovations include a replacement of the original heating ventilation and air conditioning system from 1965, new restrooms and a seating upgrade to guarantee patrons more legroom, Scarpa added. As of now, “it’s common knowledge” that the seats are not very comfortable, Scarpa said, because there are 32 inches instead of the standard 36 inches between rows.

Overall, Scarpa believes that Long Wharf’s decision to stay put is unexpectedly advantageous.

“This is an exciting development for us. We were going in one direction, but now we have an option that will really improve the patrons’ experience when they come here,” he said. Shows at the theater will continue uninterrupted, with the first performance of Simon Gray’s “The Old Masters” on the main stage this evening. The resolution of uncertainty as to the theater’s home has left most Long Wharf patrons “overjoyed” because “a large part of our identity and who we are has to do with where we are,” Collum said.

Chris Walker, a box-office employee who has been attending plays at Long Wharf since he was 6 years old and whose grandfather, Fred Walker, is on the theater’s board of trustees, agreed.

“It would be a far better decision to renovate the space here because a lot of people really have an affinity for it,” he said.

But Collum insists that “for the longer term, we’re keeping all of our options open.”

At the end of this month, he will be attending an ad hoc committee meeting to discuss the proposals of the four developers who lost out to Northland.

Tony Bialecki, deputy economic development director for the city of New Haven, said Chief Development Officer Kelly Murphy intends to re-examine the city’s plans for the Coliseum site, which is located near I-95 and the New Haven train station. The city hopes to promote a substantial development. “That’s why we decided we would be willing to wait a little while longer, rather than do a low-density development or something less ambitious,” Bialecki said.

The director and his colleagues envision a mixed-use building and have proposed that the development could be broken up into several building sites.

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