***This story was updated on Aug. 12 at 11 a.m. to correct Sarah Kautz's title***
The Franklin Square movie theater will not reopen when Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifts all restrictions on businesses, a sign on its door says.
“I’m disappointed that this particular building is closing,” said Katherine Tarascio, who filed an application in October 2018 to designate the Art Deco building a historic landmark. The Town of Hempstead’s Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved the application in February 2019, and the Town Board passed a resolution last October officially designating it as a landmark.
Then, at the end of November, Jasmin Frankel and Jay Levinson signed a lease for the theater, and took over its operations shortly thereafter. At the time, they told the Herald that they wanted to make it more family-friendly, with $5 tickets on Tuesdays and discounted tickets for seniors on Thursdays. Tickets would only cost a maximum of $8, Frankel previously said, and the theater would host events for local schools and camps.
But after months of not paying rent during the coronavirus pandemic, Frankel and Levinson were forced to shut down the operation, according to Chris Browne, an attorney representing property owner Nauman Hussain. Their last day was July 29. “They saw no path back to prosperity,” Browne said.
Frankel and Levinson could not be reached for comment as the Herald went to press.
Movie theaters across New York have been closed since March, when Cuomo ordered all non-essential businesses to cease operations. They were originally set to reopen in Phase 4 of the state’s reopening protocols, but at the end of June, Cuomo removed movie theaters, malls and gyms from the list of businesses that could reopen, citing an increase in Covid-19 infection rates in other states.
The Franklin Square theater has earned no revenue since it closed, according to Charles Procasi, who ran its promotions and marketing department.
Now, Browne said, he and Hussain are struggling to find new tenants. There is no parking lot for the property on Hempstead Turnpike, he noted, and said movie theaters are “economically difficult to run.”
Bow Tie Cinemas took over the theater’s operations in 2013 but ended its lease early, according to Browne. Then, he said, he and Hussain tried to make it work with Frankel and Levinson, but they reasoned that if Bow Tie, one of the largest movie theater chains in the country, couldn’t prosper at the location, the venture would be futile for a smaller operation.
The theater’s landmark status, Browne said, doesn’t help. It prevents developers from making any alterations to the exterior of the building, unless they are “made consistent with the materials and style of the architectural period of which said building or structure is characteristic.” As a result, Browne said, the building will always resemble a movie theater.
“I just don’t see how you’re getting a movie theater back in there,” he said, but he added that he and Hussain would work with the community “to find a viable tenant.”
The theater was constructed in 1933 by Abraham Schwartz, who built, owned and operated a number of theaters in New York City and Long Island. It is now believed to be the only Art Deco movie theater left in the Town of Hempstead, and the original brickwork, including the repeated decorative arch motif at the top of the building, can still be seen, Tarascio has pointed out at public hearings. The arch motif is also reminiscent of Egyptian Revival architecture, Sarah Kautz, preservation director at Preservation Long Island, has explained. Egyptian Revival architecture sprang up around the same time as Art Deco, and they were often mixed together.
The Town Board was unanimous in approving the theater’s landmark status, but Browne disagreed with the decision, saying that the theater was not unique enough to be a landmark, and has been altered too many times since it was built. He filed a lawsuit in Nassau County Supreme Court in December, seeking to overturn the Town Board’s vote, arguing that its resolution was “procedurally defective” because it failed to hold its hearing within 90 days of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s ruling, as required by the town code, and because the Town Board failed to issue or adopt any findings to support its determination. Additionally, Browne claimed, the evidence presented to the Town Board was “wholly insufficient to support its decision.”
In response, town officials argued that the 90-day time limit is “directory rather than mandatory,” and that if Browne could not prove that the delay of the public hearing was due to “substantial prejudice,” the resolution could not be annulled. Finally, the town said, the board does not have to adopt formal findings if the public record provides a “sufficient rational basis” for adoption.
Justice Jeffrey Brown wound up siding with the town in his decision on June 16, noting that the verbiage of the town code supports the claim that the 90-day time limit is a suggestion, and that the record from the public hearings supported the town’s resolution. “Further,” Brown wrote, “in light of the record evidence, the possibility that Board members held preconceived personal opinions is insufficient to infer that the decision was arbitrary or capricious or without a rational basis.”
Browne is now seeking to appeal the decision. Tarascio, meanwhile, said she hoped the town would erect a landmark sign at the site soon.