Lights, camera, construction!

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Lights, camera, construction!
Setting up for a shoot on 34th Avenue, outside Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, Nov. 24, 2020. New and expanded soundstages across New York will help reshape neighborhoods and turn the city into a Hollywood of the east. Tom Sibley/The New York Times.

by C.J. Hughes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The long lists of shows displayed on streaming sites, which seem to grow exponentially by the day, serve to tell you what’s on. But in New York City, they also might reveal a bit about the future of your block.

Many of the studios that produced the television series, which have turned New York into a small-screen production hub, are now planning to open new facilities or expand what’s already here, some in parts of the city that have been unfamiliar with such large-scale investment.

Fueled by a pandemic-era demand for stay-at-home entertainment, and generous tax breaks, the studios are targeting a range of locations in Queens and Brooklyn, including historic redbrick enclaves, working-class sections of the waterfront, and industrial precincts known not for celebrities but concrete plants.

These areas may not look the same for long. Previous developments of soundstages, as these facilities are known because they are designed to be soundproof, have had transformative effects. The creation of Silvercup Studios in a former bread factory in Long Island City in the 1980s, for example, helped turn that part of Queens into a trendy destination.

Some residents seem ready for their neighborhood’s star turn.

“It’s exciting,” said Vanessa Pacini, a 17-year resident of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a gritty industrial stretch where Netflix is planning a new home.

“People don’t really walk in this area. I would like to see more foot traffic,” said Pacini, who co-owns a local restaurant called Ange Noir Cafe. “But they have to keep the vibe.”

Low-slung, windowless and nondescript, many soundstages seem happy to strike a low-key profile. Indeed, Broadway Stages, which has several addresses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, doesn’t offer much in the way of signage. On a recent afternoon, a notice taped to a wall at one location about the show “Billions” was one of the only indications of what transpires there.

But other soundstages are more overt about their role as place-maker, like the century-old Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, which was run for more than three decades, starting in the early 1980s, by George S. Kaufman, a member of a prominent real estate family.

Originally owned by Paramount, which produced feature films, including two starring the Marx Brothers in 1929 and 1930, the company sold the property in 1942 to the U.S. Army, which used it for decades to create propaganda and training films. Jack Lemmon was a star. Years later, at the same address, Lemmon would shoot “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

After renovating the soundstages, whose main building, a column-fronted landmark, dates to 1921, Kaufman took steps to revitalize the surrounding community, which today has schools, restaurants and apartments that would not have otherwise existed, said Hal G. Rosenbluth, the studio’s chief executive.

Series filmed at Kaufman Astoria — which has what is believed to be the only private outdoor stage, or back lot, on the East Coast — include “Sesame Street,” “Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) and “Dickinson” (Apple TV+).

“George would always say, ‘Once you invest in the community, you help yourself by helping others.’ It sounds like a PR kind of thing, but it really is a true statement,” Rosenbluth said.

More recently, in 2016, Kaufman Astoria, with Procida Cos., codeveloped the Marx, a 33-unit condo where a two-bedroom unit with two baths was for sale last month for $995,000.

But the studio is also trying to meet the fresh demand for streaming video. This year, it cut the ribbon on two new soundstages, built on a former parking lot. Above them sit three floors of offices, which are open to nonfilm tenants. About 15,000 of the 65,000 square feet has been leased so far.

Its next project, for which Kaufman Astoria has partnered with Silverstein Properties, is more ambitious. They hope to redevelop a five-block stretch into Innovation QNS, a mixed-use district with parks, shops and 2,700 apartments. But the city would first need to rezone the area to allow for taller buildings, which could meet resistance.

Still, some who have peeked at the plans seem enthused.

“It would be mind-blowing,” said Greg Kyroglou, 44, a resident of Astoria who grew up in the neighborhood and remembers when the area around Kaufman Astoria was bleak.

“The studio has been a great asset,” said Kyroglou, now a real estate agent with the firm Modern Spaces.

While Kaufman Astoria may sit in an established neighborhood, most soundstages exist on the fringes, on streets that don’t see crowds, meaning the sites can feel like they’re backstage from the city itself.

Two new facilities are planned for just such a stretch, in Ditmars Steinway, Queens, which offers scrap metal yards, roofing contractor shops and the entrance to Rikers Island. The first, an 11-stage version from a group that includes Robert De Niro, the actor, director and entrepreneur, will rise on a windswept parcel between the Steinway & Sons piano factory and a skinny creek. Developers, who paid $72 million for the site last winter, hope to break ground in a few months.

The other facility will rise inside a factory once occupied by an Asian food wholesaler known for its egg rolls. The studio will be operated by Broadway Stages, which bought it for $8.4 million in 2015 and plans to enlarge the property and add higher ceilings, city records show.

Broadway Stages, which began life in 1983 making MTV videos for musicians like Billy Idol, today offers 60 soundstages at 30 addresses, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. But on Staten Island, it owns the former Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a 67-acre former prison whose razor-wire-ringed yards have played host to “Orange Is the New Black,” “The Blacklist” and “Bull.”

The Industrial Age is also giving way to the Information Age in the area where East Williamsburg borders Bushwick in Brooklyn, at Netflix’s site, where a printing plant once stood by railroad tracks. Netflix, one of the top creators of original programming, which includes “Orange Is the New Black,” “Stranger Things” and “Emily in Paris,” intends to have six soundstages there.

Netflix plans to rent these new soundstages from Steel Equities, a Long Island developer that bought the elongated site in January 2019 for $53 million, according to city records. Last month, Steel purchased another site for $20 million, records show, prompting speculation about further expansion.

“As long as they don’t build tall towers and tear down all the old buildings, it will be fine,” Pacini said. “We don’t want to look like Williamsburg.”

But light technicians, grips and actors won’t be the first to gentrify the area, where cement mixers continue to queue at concrete plants. Besides frequenting Pacini’s cafe, young stylish types already hang at restaurants like Rebel Cafe and Garden, which serves “disco fries” and grilled cheese ($15) in a plant-lined yard.

In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a large parking lot — complete with a Hollywood-style back lot archway — will be a selling point of a new eight-stage studio incorporating two existing brick warehouses that is planned by Steiner Studios, whose other complex, a 30-stage version at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, arrived in 2004.

At soundstages, most of the action takes place indoors. But directors occasionally capitalize on local scenery, and the Sunset Park address, amid the ruins of a former shipping district that has stunning waterfront views, is hard to beat, said Doug Steiner, the studio’s chair.

Nicknamed Steiner Sequel, cameras aren’t expected to roll on these soundstages until 2024. After a two-year competitive process, the city awarded Steiner the 14-acre site under a 99-year lease in October.

And Steiner, who has also made a name for himself as a developer of condos and rentals, is now talking to lenders for the $350 million project. As part of the deal, Steiner must complete the construction of next-door Bush Terminal Park, which now has a few sports fields, and build a playground there.

As Steiner sees it, some industries, even white-collar ones, are fading in New York, which means content creation for screens large and small is necessary. “It’s really critical to the future,” he said.

New York’s 1.5 million square feet of soundstages ranks it third in the country, after California, with 5.5 million, and Georgia, with 1.8 million, according to an October report from CBRE, a commercial real estate firm.

And employment in overall entertainment jobs has increased by 16% in New York since 2010, to 358,120, a rise many analysts attribute to soundstage growth, according to CBRE. Soundstage owners report being near full capacity. Steiner Studios’ occupancy level is about 95%.

Of course, the coronavirus has taken a toll. New York productions were paused from March to mid-July, and soundstages are now operating at only 50% capacity under state pandemic rules. But quarantine, at least in the short term, seems to have had some benefits. Video streaming has surged in popularity, up 74% nationally in the past year, CBRE said. And one-quarter of all TV watching involves streaming.

Soundstage owners say the industry would be doomed without the hefty public subsidies provided by New York state.

“Virtually all” of Steiner’s clients, for instance, avail themselves of tax breaks, which allow 30% of the cost of a large part of a production to be credited back. It’s the most generous package in the country. California and Louisiana, tied for second, offer 25%.

“I lose sleep regularly over the thought of what would happen if they were to go away,” Steiner said.

Season 2 of HBO’S “The Deuce,” which was partly filmed at Queens’ Silvercup Studios, for example, benefited from a $21 million credit in the third quarter of 2019, according to state figures.

Created in 2004 and set to expire in 2022, the breaks have so far created a tremendous amount of wealth, officials say. Since their introduction, the state has awarded nearly $8 billion in incentives to 2,200 movies and shows, most of which have been shot in the city. Those productions spent $40 billion and hired millions of workers, according to a spokesperson for Empire State Development agency, and naturally pay some taxes, too.

But echoing the opponents of the deal to bring Amazon to Queens in exchange for $3 billion in breaks, critics call the film incentives a waste of public money because they believe the moviemakers would come to New York anyway.

“Saturday Night Live,” for example, has collected up to $15 million a year, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group, but is unlikely to ever leave its New York base. The comedy show occasionally shoots at Kaufman Astoria Studios.

And with New York already facing a budget hole of billions of dollars, the “film tax credit is a very expensive incentive to provide at a time when New York state is withholding payments to school districts, nonprofits and others,” the group said.

If the method for luring movies is controversial (along with allowing shoots to disrupt streets and sidewalks), the result still seems to offer some benefits for communities.

“If it wasn’t for the studio, I don’t know where we would be today,” said Caroline Bell, a co-owner of Cafe Grumpy, a national chain of coffee shops whose pioneering location, in Greenpoint, is across from a Broadway Stages location.

In the cafe’s first year of business, in 2005, on otherwise sleepy days, large orders of “75 coffee drinks” would pour in from soundstage crews, Bell said. And actors would occasionally drop in, like Andrew McCarthy, who once popped back behind the bar to help. “That was exciting,” she said.

Similarly, Kingbridge Cleaners and Tailors, based inside the Brooklyn Navy Yard, has dry-cleaned Victorian suits worn by actors in “Boardwalk Empire,” which was filmed at nearby Steiner. Costumes from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” another Steiner production, were also scrubbed, said Richard Aviles, a co-owner of the shop, who said the studio accounted for 20% of his business pre-COVID.

“It’s a very cool feeling to see costumes on TV that you’ve cleaned,” Aviles said. “Sometimes I watch them spill something on a dress, and think, I can’t believe we got that out.”

The upsides may also be less direct, like in Port Morris, in the Bronx, a rough-edged industrial neighborhood where, in 2016, Silvercup opened a 115,000-square-foot soundstage facility in a former lighting warehouse. The towering complex sits by a depot for oil trucks and a boarded-up row house.

But some developers believe show business-related businesses will eventually follow. In the shadow of the Bruckner Expressway, a development team that includes the Altmark Group is converting a former baking factory for the A&P supermarket chain into offices.

The eight-story charcoal-toned building, called Union Crossing, has been slow to lease because of COVID, said Ellen Israel, an agent with JRT Realty Group, which is marketing it. But Israel envisions companies involved in scenery and lighting as tenants. Asking rents are about $25 per square foot a year.

“Silvercup is a known entity, and if you are doing business with them, you don’t want to be too far away,” she said. “We’re trying to create a vibe.”

In the end, there might be no surer sign of growth potential than the increasing interest from traditional real estate circles.

This fall, Square Mile Capital Management, a New York firm that previously had invested in offices and apartment buildings, and Hackman Capital Partners, a Los Angeles company with office properties, snapped up Silvercup for $369.3 million. The deal is one of several recently for the team that involves film facilities, including California’s historic Culver Studios.

Silvercup, whose rooftop sign is visible from Manhattan, has had a string of successes since opening in 1983, including “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Succession.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that something is going on with corporate event video streaming, perhaps accelerated by the impacts of COVID but probably because of a change in consumer behavior,” said Craig Solomon, Square Mile’s chief executive.

Additional soundstages may be only part of the calculation. Solomon would not rule out adding apartments or office buildings at or near Silvercup, which in addition to its main location near the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge and its Bronx soundstage has others in an industrial zone in Sunnyside, Queens.

“It’s natural to want to continue to grow and benefit from the place-making aspects of these properties,” Solomon said. “At the end of the day, it’s the business we are in.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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