New Brunswick, which has become the epicenter of original equity theater in New Jersey, hopes to further enhance that position by building a new $172 million Performing Arts Center. The facility will be home to George Street Playhouse, Crossroads Theater Co., and American Repertory Theater. It will also provide additional space to Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, located about five minutes away on the New Brunswick Campus.
The center is being put up on the site formerly occupied by the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theater, which were torn down this summer. It sits across from Monument Square Park.
The project is a public-private partnership that includes Rutgers University, as well as Devco, the private, nonprofit urban real estate development organization created in the mid-1970s to initiate redevelopment projects in the city and elsewhere in New Jersey. Devco is also known as the New Brunswick Development Corporation.
Groundbreaking for the 450,000-square-foot, 23-story mixed-use building was earlier this week. It has been a dream of some in the arts community for decades. The project is going to house two new theaters, rehearsal spaces, two floors of office space, 207 residential units, and a 344-space parking garage.
Christopher J. Paladino, president of Devco, the leader of the project, called NBPAC a “cutting-edge urban initiative that will be transformational for New Brunswick.”
Paladino said Devco has been working “as long as I have been here” to find a permanent home for the ballet, which has partnered with the New Brunswick Board of Education to put on a program called DANCE POWER that serves more than 1,500 third graders each year.
Like other cities, New Brunswick’s downtown experienced a downturn in the 1960s and 1970s as middle-class residents moved out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs. Since its founding, Devco has overseen about $1.6 billion in investment in New Brunswick, including several Rutgers buildings, the New Brunswick Wellness Plaza, the Gateway Transit Village, New Brunswick High School, and the Heldrich Hotel, located along one side of the triangular park across from the site of the new NBPAC.
With revitalization, the city has been attracting millennials and empty nesters both because of its arts and cultural offerings and because of its centrally located NJ Transit station. New Brunswick’s population has grown by about 17 percent from 1990 to almost 57,000 last year. Mayor Jim Cahill predicted it will reach 60,000 by 2020.
“The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center is an example of Devco and our City’s expertise in leveraging public-private partnerships for maximum benefit to our community as we further our commitment to the arts, housing, economic development, education and job creation,” Cahill said. “Our community revitalization is always moving forward … In New Brunswick, it just keeps getting better.”
New Brunswick renaissance
Noting that the city has undergone an “amazing renaissance,” Douglas Martin, artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet said it’s been 37 years since they moved to New Brunswick hoping to establish a permanent home.
“The creation of the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center has made this dream come true, “ said Martin. “What that means is we can plan a full season. We can bring in world-class artists. This amazing arts partnership will bring the best in dance, drama, and opera to the stage and will make New Brunswick the hottest arts destination in New Jersey.”
Anthony Carter, president of the board of Crossroads Theater Co., agreed. “We are building what will be a mecca,” he said. “There will be no limits on what we can do artistically, on what we can do creatively. I look forward to the future we are building together.”
The new theater complex will include two state-of-the-art, proscenium-style theaters, designed to accommodate musical theater, dance, opera and dramatic theater. The Lyric Theatre, which will seat 462 patrons, will feature an 86-foot stage and an orchestra pit that will be able to accommodate 60 to 70 musicians. The playhouse, designed primarily for theatrical performances and smaller dancer performances, will have 252 seats and will feature a 60-foot stage and contemporary grid system for lighting and sound and will provide the NBPAC with additional flexibility for lectures, community, and musical events.
In addition to the two theaters, the main building will also contain three rehearsal studios, which will replicate the stage spaces of the two theaters, helping maximize the use of the theater venues by providing access to rehearsal time off the main and second stages. Each studio will be designed to support dance, drama, music rehearsals, general classes, workshops, and small public performances. Above the theater complex, 30,000 feet of office space, owned by the county, will span two floors and is intended to be used by arts organizations and potential private sector groups.
Atop that will sit a 207-unit residential rental apartment tower, with 20 percent of units designated as affordable, that will be owned and operated by Pennrose LLC. The units will feature state-of-the-art appliances and finishes, 10-foot ceilings, and open floor plans, and residents will have access to an outdoor roof deck, a demonstration kitchen, work space, and a full fitness center.
The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center development team anticipates partnering with The Actors Fund to market the new luxury units to graphic artists, actors, musicians, dancers, and theater support personnel. A 344-space parking garage will also be developed on a former surface parking lot as part of the redevelopment project.
The developers expect NBPAC to not only enhance the arts community throughout New Brunswick, but also to provide an economic benefit to the community. The new theaters will be able to attract larger productions and accommodate more shows than the former George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theater. NBPAC estimates that more than 120 full-time-equivalent jobs will be created when the facility opens, increasing by one-quarter the total number of people employed across the city’s nonprofit arts and culture organizations. Together with audiences, this should lso increase revenues to local businesses. Cahill cited a study that found every $1 invested in the arts yields $51 for the local economy.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Anna Marie Gerwitz, acting president and CEO of the 1,850-seat State Theatre. “We now get more quality performing arts next to our beautiful theater that is almost 100 years old. It will help cement New Brunswick as the destination for culture and the arts.”
In addition to Devco, the partners in the project include the city, Rutgers, Middlesex County, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Pennrose LLC, the city parking authority, and 11 other organizations. Funding for the project, which the principals called one of the largest public-private partnerships in state history, is a complex web of sources, including $17 million from Rutgers, $13 million from Middlesex County, $12 million from the New Brunswick Cultural Center, and a combination of state tax credits, city redevelopment bonds, private bonds, county improvement authority bonds, and parking authority bonds.
Rutgers’ share comes from $10 million in fundraising from Mason Gross and $7 million from reserves and short-term borrowing, according to Antonio Calcado, the university’s executive vice president for strategic planning and operations. Having the additional space will allow Mason Gross to launch a new musical theater program and expand its opera program. For instance, Mason Gross does not currently have a theater with an orchestra pit, fly tower that suspends scenery, drapery, and equipment out of the audience’s view, and wing space on either side of the stage, but the new Lyric Theater will provide all these for student productions. Mason Gross also plans to use the smaller theater for screenings for its growing filmmaking program.
Those programs, and the ability to perform in a state-of-the-art performing arts center will help attract more students to Rutgers, said University president Robert Barchi. “This is a really cool thing,” he said. “It’s a great project that epitomizes what a public-private partnership can do. It’s great for the city. It’s great for our students.”
State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) was credited with helping the project clear a legislative hurdle. He said he was pleased the state could assist in bringing NBPAC to reality. “We are actually doing something here, we are creating jobs, we are making this place better than we found it,” he said.