By Bill Parry
The over-development of Long Island City south of the Queensboro Bridge has been displacing artists for more than a decade and Sheila Lewandowski was terrified her non-profit Chocolate Factory Theater was going to cease to exist when its current lease expired in May 2019.
The award-winning experimental performing arts space has been an anchor in the cultural community since it opened across from Shady Park in 2004, but Lewandowski and co-founder Brian Rogers announced Monday the acquisition of a new permanent facility in a former factory in Dutch Kills.
“If I weren’t scared, there would be something wrong with me. There was no space for us that we could afford,” Lewandowski said. “It’s incredibly relieving and exciting to be staying in Long Island City, and I love Dutch Kills. It has that old industrial feel that Hunters Point used to have. We looked at so many sites over the years and this one came to us.”
Real estate broker Alfonso Hollormon of Lee & Associates heard Lewandowski speak about the importance of art and the pressures artists and cultural institutions were under in the fight for survival against the pressures of real estate in western Queens. The broker saved her business card, and when he learned a client, Robert Salerni wanted to sell his former dye-making factory, he specifically wished his building at 38-29 24th Street would be acquired by a local arts organization, Hollormon put Salerni in touch with Lewandowski.
“And then he (Salerni) stood by us. We were in contract for 2 1/2 years,” Lewandowski said. “It was a long, arduous process because the purchase was being made with city money and all the numbers had to be scrutinized.”
The $3.8 million purchase was made possible by lead capital fund allocations from City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, the late Borough President Helen Marshall, and the de Blasio administration. It was administered by the New York City Economic Development Corporation.
“The NYCEDC was tremendous in all of this, and of course, there is no greater champion for artists and the arts in this city than Jimmy Van Bramer,” Lewandowski said.
Van Bramer, the chairman of the Council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, was determined to keep The Chocolate Factory as a driving force in making western Queens a cultural center in New York City.
“I’m proud to have allocated millions in capital funding to the Chocolate Factory Theater for the purchase of a larger performance space in Long Island City that will amplify their work empowering dancers and choreographers to push artistic boundaries without compromises and confront ideas in new ways,” Van Bramer said. “As they make their move to a new location, I am confident that the Chocolate Factory Theater will continue to be an indispensable and beloved part of our community in western Queens.”
The new facility is three times larger than its current space and will expand its audience capacity by more than 100 percent, but it needs renovating. The Chocolate Theater will conduct its 2017 to 2018 schedule at its current space at 5-49 49th Ave., as the new space undergoes necessary building code improvements. The organization anticipates partial occupancy of the building in 2018 and full occupancy in 2019.
“Building and protecting cultural institutions is a critical part of making the arts accessible for every New Yorker,” Borough President Melinda Katz said. “This new home is a reflection of the growth underway in our borough, and will provide a vibrant future for the Chocolate Factory for Queens families and visitors. You don’t have to go over a bridge or through a tunnel to experience great culture. It’s right here in Queens.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr