Howard Sachar has had a long history with independent cinema. He’s a volunteer with the Rosendale Theater Collective. He loved New Paltz’s old Academy Theater before it closed and eventually became Barnaby’s Steakhouse. Back as a college student at Park University in Massachusetts, he was involved in the student film society.
As a kid, the first movie he ever saw was the 1949 comedy “Tight Little Island.” That didn’t leave as big of an impression as the discovery he made in the Big Apple — the first avant garde independent movie he saw.
“I grew up in New York City at a time when there was a very vital and exciting arts cinema scene. There were many theaters — and there were things you just weren’t seeing,” Sachar said. “You’ve grown up on Hollywood, and there’s this whole other way in which you see the world and become familiar with issues in the world. You feel that it’s a way in which your eyes are being opened.”
A retired IBMer, Sachar has lived on-and-off in New Paltz for the last 37 years. When he left his job with the tech giant, he turned back to his old passion. A few years ago he sought out Chuck Silver, the designer of the Water Street Market, with his big idea — he wanted to bring a true art house theater to New Paltz. He wanted college students and professors and families to watch documentaries, foreign films and underappreciated gems. He wanted to build community. He wanted to build something to which people would be drawn to walk.
“If you have a place where people go to the movies, they go there to see things, but they also go there because they know they’re going to see other people there,” he said. After the movie, people would get together and talk about what they’d seen — they’d debate. Sachar wanted to foster that good-natured conversation.
With about 800 movies made each year, the majority of normal theatergoers see maybe a half-dozen or a dozen. Sachar was also willing to bet his time and resources on the idea that every year there’s about 100 good movies released that people would love — if only given a chance to see.
When his company Moving Picture Partners received an unlikely gift — the donation of the property at 12 Main Street — that vision of a nonprofit, independent theater came closer to reality.
Facing organized opposition, Water Street Cinema asks for delay
Sachar doesn’t resemble the typical stereotype of a developer. He’s soft-spoken with a slight build. Going about town, he often wears a leather jacket with a colorful flowing scarf. His eyes peer out from round eyeglasses that — depending on when you were born — conjure an image of John Lennon or Harry Potter.
The yellow house with green shutters and shingles on Main near Water Street Market is the site of his dream project. He still wants to turn it into the theater even after a well-organized push back from his neighbors on Wurts Avenue.
Two weeks ago, Sachar asked village officials to postpone a decision on a controversial parking waiver for the proposed Water Street Cinema.
Water Street Cinema is right now before both the Village of New Paltz Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. Sachar and Silver need to obtain that parking variance from the ZBA before the Planning Board moves forward with the site plan for 12 Main Street.
“We’ve still got a lot of hoops to jump through,” the prospective theater owner said.
When ZBA members asked Sachar why they wanted to delay the decision until March, he answered with a one-liner. “We are reconsidering our proposition,” he said.
Sachar and Silver’s proposal for a 360-seat, nonprofit theater — which would show a mix of independent and foreign films, documentaries and classics — has won the hearts and minds of many people in town, including nearby business owners. Water Street Market shopkeepers rallied around the promise of new four-screen theater, as did several Main Street proprietors.
When first proposed back in early 2012, the cinema idea thrilled a lot of people in town eager to have something akin to Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films in their backyard. For the neighbors nearest 12 Main Street, the mood soured as more details emerged and a request for that parking waiver was made.
In November, the Wurts Avenue Neighborhood Association — a small group led by John Litton — got organized and hired a lawyer. They flooded the local newspapers with letters to the editor attacking Moving Picture Partners’ plan. Those neighbors were at Dec. 11’s meeting in full force.
The Wurts Avenue residents prodded ZBA Chairman Karl Budmen and Village Planner Curt Lavalla for the reasoning behind Water Street Cinema’s request. Sachar answered from his seat near the back of Village Hall’s upstairs meeting room, saying he’d said his peace.
“It’s been recorded forever on film and by electronic equipment. I don’t think there’s a reason I need to repeat anything I said,” he said.
As he left the meeting, Sachar declined to comment further at that time. ZBA members voted to delay their decision on the parking waiver until their meeting on March 12, 2013.
“It’s meant to be an open statement,” he clarified during an interview last week. “We’re trying to create this community-focused, mission-driven cinema. And we want to do what’s best and most acceptable to the community.”
He noted that the designs were not set in stone. “We’re definitely open to reconsidering pieces of this.”
Neighbors oppose the theater project not because they don’t like independent movies, but because they think if a total waiver of all 75 parking spots were granted, that theatergoers would clog up spaces on the already cramped Wurts Avenue. That’s something that Sachar disputes. He points to a traffic study done for the site, which says the project wouldn’t have a huge parking or traffic impact on Wurts.
Opponents and fans have used Motion Picture Partners Facebook page to go point-for-point with the developers about their views.
Litton, with the Wurts Avenue Neighborhood Association, recently wrote a note to the developer on their page. “Build it in front of the market on the available land unless it deprives the market of the view,” he wrote. “Right thing, wrong place.”
They also objected to the scale of the project, which would be a large expansion to the existing yellow house at 12 Main — coming in at two stories tall and with 15,000 square feet of floor space. The word “big-box theater” has been thrown around about Water Street Cinema.
Sachar pointed out that it’s common for art house theaters to have four screens and at least 400-500 seats total. Water Street Cinema wants 360 seats. “‘Big-box’ is clearly being used in a pejorative sense,” he said.
Neighbors believe the building will be at least 35 feet tall in places, which is the maximum allowed by village code. The height calculation is made tricky by two things: 1) the fact that plans call for multiple heights for different parts of the theater, 2) and the fact that it is to be built into the hill.
The Lynches, who live at 7 Wurts Avenue, will lose their view of the Shawangunk Mountains if the project is built. But Sachar said he feels the project has been somewhat misrepresented by neighbors and that the building’s height would be partially mitigated because it sits down the hill a ways from the Lynches.
According to one site plan diagram, the roof of the house at 7 Wurts Avenue is about 275 feet above sea level. A nearby garage roof is 260 feet above sea level, a nearby barn roof is 261 feet above sea level, and down the slope the Water Street Cinema’s proposed roof would be at 258 feet above sea level.
“This is not wildly tall,” Sachar said, who noted he wanted to be a good neighbor and was open to talking with and hearing out the Wurts neighbors. Of 7 Wurts Avenue, he added: “I do care about this house.”
Back in February, Water Street Cinema was originally proposed to be a three-screen theater with a bit less seating capacity. It’s unclear if Sachar and Silver will fall back on that idea, but the developer noted any plan they develop needs to generate enough revenue to keep the non-profit running.
Movie distributors charge theater owners a percentage of box office sales for the right to screen movies. In the case of an art house theater, that can be around 50 percent of ticket sales going back to studios. Sachar noted that to stay in business, four screens would work the best to allow Water Street Cinema to keep lesser-known flicks playing while buzz built locally and more people went to see them.
Parking, a vision for the future and more
Sachar believes that the parking issue can be resolved to the neighbors’ satisfaction. He noted that the traffic study anticipated that many people would walk to the movies or even ride the New Paltz Loop Bus from the SUNY New Paltz campus.
If built, Water Street Cinema would discourage parking on Wurts Avenue. They’d identify and guide patrons to parking spots within a 5-10 minute walk away. Sachar noted that blocking driveways is a traffic offense and they’d support having wayward theater parkers clogging up Wurts prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
If approved by the village Planning Board and ZBA, the theater would try to stage events where people could meet actors, directors and filmmakers at the screening of their movie. They’d also like to foster a relationship with the college and local school districts by running educational films on science, foreign language and filmmaking itself.
To learn more about what’s proposed, head to http://www.scribd.com/doc/113271661/Water-Street-Cinema-Traffic-Impact-Study.