Sheila tells the story of The Chocolate Factory’s new building, in 28 daily installments.
He had a very deep voice. Al said, “I heard you speak at a real estate breakfast last year and I kept your card.” “Which one?” I replied. I was trying to place the voice and my thoughts exploded in different directions trying to guess what this person wanted. “Last May in Long Island City. I think it was Bisnow. You sounded like you know what’s going on in the community.” Al continued as I stayed relatively quiet waiting for the reveal. “I have a guy who owns a building and he wants to sell it to an arts group. Do you know any group or artist looking?” Now the words just spilled out. I wanted to know who told him to call me, why he kept my card, where is the building, how did he know that we were looking, how much did the seller want?????????? He laughed at my switch from silence to speed questions and said, “Don’t you own your building? Wow. Cool. When do you want to see it?”
They knew something was different. When I hung up the phone on April 9 something was different. I remember trying not to be too excited but this felt like the stars aligned – angels were dancing – whispering in my ear – ‘This is it!’ Of course I’d been down this road before so I wasn’t 100% sure that this wasn’t just my ability to believe because I had to. I had to believe everyone of the meetings and sites was ‘the one’ and I did every time. I often say that I felt like a real estate courtesan as we went through this. I LOVED every site and LOVED every possible partner. It was exhausting to LOVE them all. I have greater respect for courtesans and prostitutes because it is not easy to keep the game afloat.
That first visit to the building on April 15, 2015 was just Madeline, Jon, Davey and me. Davey was there on Madeline’s chest in a wrap since he was just about 6-7 weeks old.
Deep voiced Al was waiting for us along with the owner of the building, Bob. We entered the building through a steel door that opened into a narrow vestibule and then a grilled steel gate. Bob smiled and welcomed us with a real NYC – Queens accent. Bob led us into the factory and we all gasped. The machinery filled the space but we saw that the ceiling was about 18’ and there was a big open area without columns! Operable steel factory windows lined one wall. Skylights winked from above. This was different. The angels were whispering.
Where there are angels there are devils, but I think of devils the way demons were described in one of my favorite movies, Jacob’s Ladder:
“…if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you…”
The devils were the details and they were everywhere.
The site was actually two buildings on one 7500/sf lot. Bob occupied the southern half, which was the corner of 24th Street and 39th Avenue. Like his father before him, Bob operated this as a die cutting factory. His hands reminded me of a sculptor’s hands; expressive, able to fine-tune, to feel details, but toughened. One of his clients had been Stetson Hats. I thought of those beautiful hats starting in this factory full of steel and grease. Devils to angels.
We couldn’t look at half of the building since Bob still had a tenant and didn’t want his tenant to know that he was trying to sell. We tried to nonchalantly walk past the northern part of the building. The rolling steel door was up but it was hard to see past the thick and tall plastic weather strips hanging down without drawing attention to ourselves. They cut marble and stone in the northern part.
As we left the building Bob was eager to know if we were interested but wanted us to tell Deep voiced Al after we left. I was eager not to show how eager I was. Fortunately, Brian was good at not looking eager and Madeline (and Davey) kept us all smiling.
Brian, Madeline and I were a 3-legged stool. The tension of two balanced by the presence of the third.
It is possible that I am remembering that it was a beautiful spring day because I want to. I can see from the photos that the sky was clear and the wind just a breeze. I found the facts to support my reality.
I was partially ignoring all of the things that could go wrong but how could I explain that the angels were whispering? How do you explain love? It just happens, right? Okay, sometimes its not right, but you can’t ignore it and you can’t explain it and I was in love with 38-29 24th Street.
Bob, the seller, enlisted a commercial real estate broker to find an arts group to buy his building. He told us that he wanted it to be something good for the community. I did not make that up. It was his Dad’s factory and the business slowed over the years and his kids didn’t want to continue it. He could have just sold it on the market quickly and move on. He was so happy when we came to look at it.
I knew that we needed to move quickly on all of the things we could control. As we walked toward Queens Borough Plaza we talked but in my mind I was making lists.
We needed a lawyer for the contracting. We needed an architect to develop new drawings and an MWBE contractor for bids to go with the drawings. We needed to see the north part of the building and the roof and the cellar, and, and, and… We needed all of this and more before we went back to DCA (Dept. of Cultural Affairs). We needed everything to be right.
I am not sure if it was the next day or a few days later, but … I had a phone call with deep voiced Al.
“Hey Al”, me, trying to be cool and hoping to buy some time, “we are interested.”
Al replied “Well…Bob is out of town for a few weeks. Let me find out his schedule so that we can meet again to work out some details.”
The next few weeks took us into mid-May 2015 just before the 10th Annual Taste of LIC, our audit was still ‘finishing’ due to delays in the winter, I had a National Arts Strategies gathering in Detroit, performed in the Rebecca Patek show at The Chocolate Factory, and started to gather the support we needed to make this building a reality.
The first calls were to Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz and the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). They deserved to know that this building was a very real possibility since they believed in the project from the beginning and allocated public funds for a permanent facility in and for Long Island City, Queens. I looked forward to the day that my call to them about a building or partnership in a permanent facility ended up in a ‘building’ for a permanent Chocolate Factory Theater. I dreaded every failed marriage as if I was letting them down, the community down, the artists down, my staff down.
April 30, 2015 I had a meeting with a representative of the Capital Unit at DCA. This meeting was what I expected it to be. They listened to the story I had told so many times before and told me that what I wanted was not done… certainly not done easily or not done at all since the definition of ‘not done easily’ meant cancel your life for the next few years and devote it to nothing else and maybe…I took this to heart, but I’ve also been inspired by less optimistic proposals.
Bob was getting back to town in the beginning of June. Taste of LIC was June 2, I was heading to Amsterdam to work the Saturday after and then Alaska at the end of the month. I begged deep voiced Al to convey to Bob that as soon as I returned from Alaska I was dedicating my existence to the acquisition. Al arranged for me to meet with Bob between Taste of LIC and Alaska.
When I arrived at the building Bob was in his office through a steel roll gate, solid steel door and grated steel door. We talked for about two hours about the western Queens he grew up in. He spoke of the Italian immigrants of his childhood, the delis long gone, dining at Manducatis, Manettas, later Trattoria L’Incontro and others. He shared some stories I don’t feel at liberty to write about, asked me about working with my ex-husband with a twinkle in his eye that conveyed a sense of not believing it could be cordial and asked about why it was important to me to build a theater.
I shared with him why I cared so deeply about art and artists and there being places for artists to create. But, it was when I said this was my life’s work to date, like having a kid that he held up his right hand, dropped his head while lifting his lower lip signaling me to pause and said, “Let’s do it.” His brown eyes looked through his glasses at me believing. And, so I believed again.
We shook hands. His sculptor’s hand in my gardener’s hand.
Bob and I were giddy as we left the factory. It was as if we made a pact when we shook hands. Sculptor’s hands Bob was another person I was determined not to let down. When you don’t have your own money your actions, ethics, values, morals, care and drive are your currency.
Bob offered me a ride home when I said I was going to walk. I tried to say no, but he insisted and I got into his hot rod. Bob had a sweet ride. I honestly can’t remember if it was a red mustang or camero. I ribbed him good when he opened the door. “Really Bob? Would I offend you if I said you’re a ‘cliché?’” He laughed and replied, “You should see my other car.” We giggled as we drove and he told me about the engine, how much he loved driving it and I was happy for him. I think Bob said he was around 70 but his spirit and physical presence were young.
“Sheila. I trust you. This is going to happen, right?” Bob asked. He glanced over at me while driving and was serious.
I felt tears and tension rise in me. Scared to tell him the truth but I had to. “I’m going to do everything I legally can to make it so. It’s going to take time, Bob. Why did you want an arts group? Wouldn’t it be easier to just sell it to whoever comes with money first?”
He pulled up his lower lip again, sculptor’s hands on the wheel. He stared straight ahead. He started gesturing slightly with his left hand as we drove and said, “It shouldn’t be another hotel. They’re going up like weeds. I’m glad it will be something good. It should be something good.”
As we drove he pointed to this and that telling me what was there before, where he played as a child and as an adult in different ways. “That was a deli. That was where ‘that’ happened. They made the best sauce.” I did mention that Bob was Italian, right?
Sculptor’s hands Bob was a person I was determined not to let down. Our dream was now in his future, too.
As we approached my block our shared giddiness slipped away. Bob started asking direct questions and pressing me. “So what happens now? How long will this take? I really want to be done soon so that I can spend more time with my grandchildren, and I want to do things for them. I’m not young, you know.”
Tears and tension rose again. “I’m not sure Bob. I won’t lie to you. I just don’t know.” I really wanted this for him, too.
I got out of the car and went home and sat paralyzed. I was scared and didn’t want to show Bob and everyone how scared I was. This one was different and I kind of felt like this building had to be it or we had to plan to close. We couldn’t keep chasing this dream. I couldn’t keep this up.
I believed that I had to absorb everyone’s doubts including my own and keep everyone believing that it would happen, that it could happen. I read that now and think of how arrogant that sounds, but it is what I felt and is part of the story. I also look back now and wonder just how many of the people who helped, allocated funds, wrote letters, took and went to meetings, held my hand and cheered for us didn’t think it would happen. I wonder how many of them were scared for me (as I was scared for my staff, for Brian for the artists) and how another failed permanent Chocolate Factory attempt – was this the 10th or 12th – might crush me. I wonder if the inner circle (Brian, Madeline, Board, staff) went home and cried. I don’t know and I’m glad they didn’t share that with me then.
I forced myself out of the easy chair in my house and went back to the office. I knew that Brian and Madeline wanted to know how my meeting with Bob went.
Me, “We talked about the neighborhood and what it was. We talked about the building and what it was. We talked about why it is so important to him that his factory, his father’s factory doesn’t become another hotel – some boring efficiently constructed building that makes sure that every corner is useful; makes money. He’s excited.”
Them, “What now?”
I dodged deep-voiced Al’s calls and specific questions, especially about timing of the sale as it was Taste of LIC (TOLIC) time. TOLIC was Tuesday, June 2 and the two weeks before TOLIC is just…Taste of LIC. There is no room for much else in the calendar at that time but I did manage to solicit an appraiser and architect and make sure all of the funding partners knew about every step of the process. We were accustomed to working too hard on too many things at the same time, but the added stress of working toward a beginning or maybe an end was like walking into the dark and knowing there was a hole in the earth somewhere on the path ahead.
There was also the stress of not being able to tell anyone who wasn’t in the inner-inner circle. We couldn’t tell artists, friends, community members, our landlord, our other potential development partners who we were actively making plans with. We had to get all the pieces moving and were sworn to secrecy in the office. We were afraid that someone else would swoop in and convince Bob to sell to them. We were afraid that it would fall through so we kept treating each of the other potential partners as ‘the one.’ We were afraid that our current landlord would find out when we were still trying to figure out how to stay in our current building as a possibility, too. I sat at dinner with a friend who is in real estate and this friend was telling me about a building near ‘our’ building that was going for a crazy amount of money. I was afraid Bob would hear about that building and ask for more than whatever the appraisal turned out to be. That cone of silence continued until July 2017; over two years. The cone was banged up and had some holes in it the closer and closer we got to the closing but we mostly kept publicly silent and that was really hard.
Back to June 2015.
One of the many things we had to do for Taste of LIC was to create and file architectural drawings ‘to code’ for the public assembly areas of the tent and surrounding areas. We had the good fortune to have an architect connected to us from the dance world who helped us get them done. Angel (ahn-Hell) Ayon (Ayon Studios) is married to choreographer Sarah White-Ayon and we’ve known Sarah for a long time. Angel helped us to get schematics done in 2015 for TOLIC so we reached out to Angel and asked if he could help do something similar (but way more complicated), based on all of our needs and wants for this new building. We had a few thousand dollars left from a grant to use specifically for architectural drawings so he excitedly agreed. In all of our other failed opportunities the developer’s architects made the drawings but this time we were on our own. We needed these drawings to build budgets to file with the City to try to reallocate the funds that we had raised to purchase and renovate a permanent home (originally in the building we currently call home) years earlier.
At the same time we had to agree on a price for the building. I knew the City could not and would not pay more than an appraised value so I was asking the angels to whisper in sculptor hands Bob’s ears a price that would not exceed the appraised value. The price that deep-voiced Al told me that Bob wanted seemed very reasonable. I knew of nearby properties going for more so I thought that we actually had a chance to have the asking price close to the appraised price! Bob and I still had not discussed a price directly. He did say, “Al told you the price, right?”
June 23, 2015 was the site visit for the first appraiser. June 24, 2015 Angel went to the building to get accurate measurements.
Sculptor hands Bob was nervous to have an appraiser and architect poking around at the building because he didn’t want his tenant to know he was selling. He really liked his tenant, needed the income to keep coming in and knew this was going to take at least a year so why scare the tenant now. He kept asking me if we wanted to keep the tenant. I tried to explain to him that the City was investing in an arts space not a commercial industrial for profit space. But, I reassured him that we would give him at least six months notice from when we thought the closing would happen. Bob had his own cone of silence.
Angel is probably around 6’ tall, beautiful, dark-skinned, refined Cuban accent and always the best-dressed person in the room. Let’s call him refinado Angel.
Refinado Angel and sculptor hands Bob hit it off immediately when Angel went to the building on June 24 to take pictures, get measurements and other information he would need to start making our drawings. When I saw Bob again in late July he would stop talking about Angel. “That Angel really knows his stuff. You better keep him around. He was right about this. He was right about that.” I assured him that we had every intention of continuing to work with Angel as long as Angel would have us. I mean he was refinado and we were The Chocolate Factory.
July 1, 2015: I had a flight to Seattle. My bestie and I were going on an inside passage Alaskan cruise! I was a bit worried because there would be stretches of the 7 days on the ship that I would not be reachable since the cost of wifi was almost as much as the cruise itself. One of the things I learned in the decade long pursuit of a permanent home is that ‘hurry up and wait’ only applies to you and any attempts to resist this modus operandi is a waste of time and your energy.
Fortunately the cruise happened during the week of the 4th of July so my absence was probably not even noticed except for my posts on social media. By the time I returned the first appraisal report was in. We ordered a second one from a different agency to cover our tracks. The asking price matched the first appraisal but I was nervous that it was too perfect so we ordered a second one and hoped that the numbers still worked. This was money we had to lay out without any possibility of getting it back and no way to raise funds for it. There were many expenses like that and we took a hit in our operating budget for these unplanned expenses. This coincided with Madeline’s back-to-back maternity leaves that we made sure to give her compensation for so we had our first ever deficit.
July 23, 2015: Brian, Madeline and I sat down with refinado Angel and a Board member with lots of nonprofit facility management and development experience. To prepare for this meeting we sent Angel a list of needs and wants and dreams. We dreamt of two autonomous spaces for performance and rehearsals, a big office, 3 apartments for visiting artists coming through NYC, 2 apartments for future leadership when Brian and I move on since the theater is being built to outlive us. Those early meetings were so exciting!
Refinado Angel’s first set of drawings was his dreams on top of our dreams; and the Department of Buildings code requirements.
“Angel”, I asked, “why is 1/3 of the building dedicated to toilets?”
“That is the number of bathrooms required based on the current building codes for public assembly.” was the answer.
“Are you f—king kidding me?” was my reply. I could have tempered my response for the purposes of this story, but sometimes cursing sums it up most efficiently. I just couldn’t believe we would have to give up 33% of our space to toilets.
That first real set of drawings was too much and we all knew it. Each of us and all of us provided feedback and we planned a follow-up meeting in the next week. I used the next week to study the building codes, reach out to other builders and developers to bust that toilet myth. There was no way we were using 2500/sf for toilets.
I left the meeting feeling an urgent need to update our current and prospective funders, supporters, and elected officials. I knew the drawings would change but I sent these grand drawings with a plea for confidentiality (& 2500/sf of toilets) to the ‘inner circle.’ Included in that ‘inner’ circle was the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA).
July 29, 2015: I had a phone meeting with a person in leadership (not the commissioner) at the DCA. It was an important call in that I heard a willingness to believe in this building as the culmination of 10+ years of planning. I got an infusion of hope! They wanted to see the second appraisal, updated drawings, operating models & budgets, information on our legal counsel, bids for construction based on new drawings and more.
Just now, as I was about to close this chapter, I had a moment when I felt the tension, fear, drive and exhaustion that we lived with those days.
A few days later the second appraisal came in.
Let’s take a step back.
Part 1 opened on April 9, 2015 but this story started in 1997. In an effort to provide context this chapter is an attempt to summarize those years. I’m leaving out all of the shows and just focusing on the real estate with a little financials mixed in. Part 11 will continue with the results of the 2nd appraisal as mentioned at the end of Part 9.
1997 Sheila & Brian are resident artists making work at the Mazer Theater on East Broadway, LES / 1999 we incorporate as theater et al, Inc. – yeah, we know, the name sucks / 1999 Mazer kicks us out for having performances after Sunday on Friday because it was a Jewish community Center / 1999 We rent a 750/sf space – Studio1204 W38th St / 2002 1st ever grant $2000 from NYSCA / 2003 Move to LIC & open Repetti Chocolate Factory, 23rd St. LIC / 2004 sign lease on 49th Ave. & become The Chocolate Factory / 2005 Visiting Artist Program is launched / 2006 Awarded pledge for $25K for dance floor from DCA (HUD $$) / 2007 Denied use of grant because of outdated Certificate of Occupancy / 2008 DCA converts small cap grant for planning / 2009 launch feasibility study with aforementioned 25K / 2010 Master Facilities Plan launched NYSCA supported / 2011 Feasibility Study completed with AMS Planning & Research / 2012 Queens Borough President Helen Marshall awards $500K toward acquisition & renovation / 2012 Developer T asks us to partner / 2012 Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer awards $600K toward acquisition & renovation / 2013 We make an offer to purchase our current building / 2013 Developer T’s project falls through / 2013 Developer R asks us to partner / 2013 Our landlord, John Kocan dies suddenly / 2013 Sheila speaks at a Real Estate Bfast (invited by Eric Benaim, CEO & Founder of Modern Spaces) / 2014 Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer awards $850K toward acquisition & renovation / 2014 Developer R’s project falls through / 2014 Broker (Deep-voiced Al) contacts Sheila about new building / 2015 Still negotiating with widow to buy / 2015 Developer D asks us to partner / 2015 Developer S asks us to partner / 2015 Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer awards $257K toward acquisition & renovation / 2015 We make an offer to buy the new building / 2015 Queens Borough President Melinda Katz awards $700K toward acquisition & renovation / 2016 DCA awards $1.3million toward acquisition & renovation (total now $4.2 million matching original budget for current building for all) / 2016 Developer D’s project falls through / 2016 Developer S’s project falls through / 2016 Developer F asks us to partner / 2016 We look at a dozen potential properties while still speaking with the widow of our landlord about our current building / 2016 We are officially in contract to buy new building / 2016 work with NYC EDC, DCA & MOCS on acquisition / 2017 Developer F’s project falls through / 2017 July 20, 2017 We own a building & get a massive set of keys.
We were really nervous about the second appraisal. I don’t know if you remember from an earlier chapter but if the appraisal amount turned out to be less than the asking price this was a no-go. The first appraisal was just slightly under the asking price but the second appraisal was actually higher than the asking price. This posed a different problem. Right now we had a handshake deal. Sculptor hands Bob and gardener hands Sheila (me) shook on the deal for $3.75 million with the caveat it would happen if the City could make this investment.
We needed to be in contract fast. Deep voiced Al and sculptor hands Bob could raise the price and that could kill the deal, too. Al asked me about the appraisals and I told him they were in line with the asking price. He asked to see them and I procrastinated without drawing attention to them. I truly believed that Al and Bob would honor the handshake deal but real estate in NYC is a vicious business so I was nervous and cautious. I remembered what Brian and I went through when we bought our house. I had a handshake deal with the owners who were the only family to live in our house since it was built in the 1870’s or 1880’s thereabouts. Three generations starting with immigrants from Italy. The seller’s lawyer was not happy with the price and tried everything he could do to kill the deal. This put the sellers in a very tough place. The lawyer just kept adding things to the contract that were completely ludicrous making it impossible for us to sign. Obviously it worked out since I still live in the house but it was touch and go. Our attorney was pulling his hair out telling us not to sign but I knew it was my house just like I knew this was the permanent Chocolate Factory. This was going to happen but it was like walking a tightrope. Don’t look down!
DCA was waiting on us to finish our paperwork and we needed them to be in contract. We needed them to approve a contract that we couldn’t create until they approved the updated paperwork.
The month of August was dedicated to the drawings since we couldn’t update the budget without quotes based on drawings. As we neared completion of the drawings we found our contractor! – Tony Quinn of TNT Industries. Let’s call Tony ‘fisherman’s gaze Tony.’ Tony stands tall, broad chested with a knowing twinkle in his eyes. Like Bob he has sculptor hands but his demeanor is more like that of a deep-water fisherman. He looks long but with humor asking the sea what she plans to send him.
The first set of drawings, accumulated dreams for a permanent Chocolate Factory, included two performance spaces and five apartments. Two of the apartments would house future leadership as part of their compensation packages as well as three apartments for artists as part of their residencies.
This $40-50 million dream is still a dream, but a dream for another era.
Brian, Madeline, refinado Angel and I pushed hard to come up with designs that were possible given the resources we believed we could raise. Five iterations later we had drawings for rehearsal spaces only. Refinado Angel was a little disappointed in the moment since there could be no creativity in this minimal set of drawings, but he understood this was a first important move in a decade long future launching from a decade-long past. We decided that we should get in there, give artists rehearsal residencies as soon as possible. We tried by failed to raise capital money for renovation in advance of owning the building from private sources but were turned down for many reasons included the fact that no private funder was going to allocate money to a project that still might fall through. Ownership did not happen until the closing so we had to adjust our plans. There are also very few places that a small arts venue can apply to for capital or any funding, especially if the operating budget is under $1 million.
We were also afraid to include big renovation plans as part of the request to the City since that could delay acquisition by years. There was no way that sculptor hands Bob was going to wait years. He was eager to spend more time with his grand children and to be the grandfather who spoiled them.
We had a $50,000 capital grant from NYS Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan to use to upgrade the bathrooms so we incorporated upgraded, ADA compliant bathrooms into the drawings and operating budgets as a rehearsal facility. Let’s pause to introduce Assemblywoman Nolan. Cathy is a force. She has lightening-fast wit, hears and remembers everything and cares deeply about the lives of persons, not just ‘people’ as a term for a constituents or as an umbrella term for people gathered around a single issue. If Cathy were to be a more frequent daily presence in this story I would call her The Incandescent Catherine. Actually, The Incandescent Catherine returns much later in the story so glad we got the introduction out of the way.
It was September by the time we had this reduced-dream set of drawings and the quotes from Fisherman’s gaze Tony. We felt ready to sit down with Department of Cultural Affairs so that we could move into contract.