Are Broadway’s Shuberts Horse-Trading (Again) To Expand Their Neigh…borhood?

UPDATE with more details: The Shubert Organization declined to comment yesterday for Deadline’s exclusive story about its recently purchased warehouse on West 48th Street and any plans for the adjacent stable, which may soon be vacant. The Shuberts do, however, have a storied history when it comes to stable-to-theater conversions. The Winter Garden, one of the district’s best houses and currently home to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new hit School Of Rock—The Musical, is a case in point, as the Shubert Organization website attests:

“Shubert has owned the Winter Garden Theatre longer than any of its other venues. The playhouse occupies the second American Horse Exchange, built by William K. Vanderbilt in 1896, when Longacre (now Times) Square was the center of the horse and carriage trade. By 1911, when the Shuberts leased the Exchange, horses had given way to the automobile and legitimate stage was making inroads north of 42nd St. The Winter Garden was converted into a theatre in 1911, and had brief interludes as a movie house from 1928 to 1933 when Warner Brothers leased it, and again in 1945, when United Artists ran it.”

EARLIER: Broadway’s most powerful landlord, the Shubert Organization, may be angling to profit from New York’s current obsession with those clip-clopping horse-drawn carriages that roll tourists around Central Park. You have to play Six Degrees of Separation to suss out the connection, but a recent full-page newspaper advertisement, paid for by groups supporting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to eliminate or shrink the carriage trade, was revealing: There, listed among the various animal-rights groups that have long decried the horse-and-buggy trade as outdated and cruel, was the Shubert Organization. What’s their interest? Follow the money:

Deadline reported exclusively awhile back that the Shuberts paid above the asking price for a warehouse on West 48th Street in Hell’s Kitchen, just outside the Broadway Theater District. The Shuberts own 17 Broadway houses and have been on a selling spree over the last decade, taking in roughly $50 million from the sale of the oxygen above their protected theaters. Those increasingly lucrative air rights grew out of the city’s decision to landmark the district, preventing the owners from substantially changing or demolishing the theaters. They have provided Broadway’s landlords — which include the Nederlander Organization, with nine theaters, and Jujamcyn Theatres, with five — a windfall as Midtown West has taken off as one of the hottest development areas in the city.

Unlike their competitors, however, the Shubert Organization is a nonprofit company that owns its commercial theaters. When they have a lot of cash on hand, they need to spend it to support their nonprofit ends, which includes, to be sure, the invaluable and unmatched philanthropy of the Shubert Foundation, the country’s most significant support of nonprofit theater and dance companies. The Foundation lists assets of nearly a half-billion dollars and dispenses over $20 million annually. In addition to its good public works and Broadway ventures, however, the Shubert Organization also is a real estate holding company. Shubert owns, in addition to those 17 Broadway houses, unrelated businesses including parking garages, apartment buildings — and bank branches and fast-food franchises in far-flung places.

Still, no one could quite figure out why the Shuberts would spend $11.25 million — $1.25 million above the asking price — for the five-story H.B. Day warehouse several long blocks west of Shubert Alley, the private driveway between 44th and 45th Streets where Shubert chairman Philip J. Smith and president Robert Wankel park their chauffeur-driven cars when they’re upstairs in the Shubert offices atop the Shubert Theatre. They certainly didn’t need free parking in the District.

But as with most things Manhattan, in the end it’s all about real estate. The horses and carriages that provide those pricey rides for romance-seeking tourists are housed in four Midtown West stables on lots that suddenly are worth millions. Among them: the Chateau on West 48th St. It’s about 12,500 square feet and it’s adjacent, you guessed it, to the Day warehouse.

The New York Post asked real-estate veterans Steven Hornstock and Randy Modell of ABS Partners to valuate those four soon-to-be-vacant lots. “The Far West Side is taking off like a rocket,” Hornstock told the Post. Their assessment? “A developer could pay $6 million to make way for a five- to six-story commercial structure” on the Chateau site.

Of course, with all that unsold air still sitting atop their theaters, the Shuberts could add considerably to that height limitation — making it ripe for their own development or for sale to the various real estate consortiums that have been turning the once human-scaled Theatre District and Hell’s into a Pick-Up Stix of high-rise commercial and residential needles.

Smith and Wankel, asked to comment on Shuberts’ support of the horse-and-buggy ban and plans for the Day warehouse, said through a spokesman that they have no comment.

The Chateau stable has been on West 48th Street for 50 years. The owner, Gloria McGill, has rejected numerous offers to sell. Still, the Shuberts, as every producer looking for a theater to house a show well knows, can be extremely persuasive. And no one should ever underestimate their horse sense.

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