The Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center under construction in Lower Manhattan (photo Billy Anania/ Hyperallergic)

A new $500 million arts center in Lower Manhattan named after a billionaire Trump donor is endorsing a controversial luxury development project at the World Trade Center — despite activists’ calls for more affordable housing.

The Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC) is scheduled to open in 2023 after more than 18 years of planning. Designed by Brooklyn architecture firm REX, the 127,000-square-foot building is one of two public institutions at the World Trade Center, along with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, made possible in part through an $89 million federal grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) and US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The arts center is also a neighbor of the proposed 5 World Trade Center (5WTC) luxury residential tower, which has been criticized by local residents and city officials demanding “desperately needed affordable housing for Lower Manhattan and housing opportunities for 9/11 survivors at the WTC.”

In a September 15 public hearing, a recording of which was shared with Hyperallergic, the Perelman Center’s director of civic alliances, Jenna Chrisphonte, endorsed moving forward with the completion of 5 World Trade Center without making it fully affordable.

“The proposed project would have a minimum of 25% affordable housing, approximately 300 units, which means that a family with an annual income of $60,000 or an individual making $40,000 annually would be able to afford living in Lower Manhattan,” Chrisphonte said at the hearing. “The performing arts center is honored to be here today to encourage your support of this project.”

But some view PAC’s endorsement as an overreach, especially given the arts center’s exorbitant price tag — its elaborate $275 million architectural design features a steel structural system and 5,000 tiles of translucent marble that allow the building’s facade to glow from within. For historian Todd Fine, a Hyperallergic contributor and president of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, the PAC’s excess spending contradicts state officials’ claims that a fully affordable 5WTC would be too costly. Fine also contends that the Perelman Center was “lobbying” on behalf of the developers, giving the impression of another luxury real estate deal disguised as a community benefit. 

“The Perelman is such an extraordinary use of public money for private use,” he told Hyperallergic. “Even before 5WTC, there is a question: What is its real purpose? Culture is starved in this area, particularly the arts and theater, so when you see an entity that can write blank check after blank check, we have to make sure it meets the public purpose.”

The PAC’s namesake, Ronald Perelman, reportedly donated over $100k to Donald Trump’s campaign. His parents, Ruth and Raymond, also have a building named after them at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The PAC counts Michael Bloomberg as its chairman and Barbra Streisand as its board chairwoman, and the inaugural performance will be a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

In a recent op-ed published by none other than the New York Post, Perelman himself described the PAC as a “beacon” and “capstone” for the revitalized neighborhood. In addition to $100 million from the LMCD and private donations, Perelman has inserted $75 million of his own money into the project; however, it remains unclear how much of the remaining costs were covered by public funding.

And while Port Authority will directly receive rents from 5WTC tenants, the PAC gets to live rent-free. Along with the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the Perelman Center is one of two public institutions that are “leased without a charge for a 99-year term, subject to maintaining their public purpose,” a Port Authority spokesperson told Hyperallergic.

The PAC did not respond to Hyperallergic’s multiple requests for comment.

For two decades, the site of the 9/11 attacks has been in a prolonged state of redevelopment. Long-term disputes between state and city officials have resulted in a mix of new office and residential buildings around the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The proposed 5WTC will be located on the final public lot in this development.

The Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5WTC, which includes longtime tenants, families of 9/11 victims, and community board members, has been pushing developers Silverstein and Brookfield Properties to set all units of the 900-foot 5WTC at income-adjusted rents. Members have also rallied to hold the LMDC to its original affordability goals, such as a $50 million allocation that never actually went toward housing, and conducted a feasibility study that would make 5WTC the highest affordable residential tower in the country. 

The Coalition’s efforts recently led the City Planning Commission to emphasize maximizing 5WTC’s affordability during a recent public hearing, but no additional affordable units have been announced.

With all this in mind, the PAC’s interference in 5WTC’s development — and overall role in the neighborhood — remains ambiguous, leading some to question why a public institution would side with private developers over community members. For Fine, the development risks opening public land to further privatization and turning the area into another Hudson Yards.

“Perelman intervened in a community dispute, which is disgusting for an entity that should just take their money and do whatever they do,” he said. ”Is Broadway South what Lower Manhattan really needs right now?”

Editor’s note 10/21/22 3pm EDT: A previous version of this article referred to the height of the Perelman Arts Center building; it has since been updated to note the total square footage of the space.

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Billie Anania

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.