New Beginnings – New Brunswick Performing Arts Center

October 14th, 2017

By Julio Mora – NJ Urbanthinker

On June 5th of 2017, the demolition of two iconic and historical buildings in New Brunswick, the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre, began. The area would become home to a new state of the art cultural center that would cover 450,000 square feet, rise by 22 stories, and cost approximately 190 million. The main contributors and supporters of the project include the New Brunswick Development Corporation, or DEVCO, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, the New Brunswick Cultural Center Inc., Rutgers University, Pennrose, and the New Brunswick Parking Authority. Millions of dollars would also be financed from the State Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program. The tower would be a mixed use development composed of two state of the art theatres, a new parking facility, as well as office residential space. The residential units would composed of 250 modern market rate and affordable housing apartments. The parking garage would include 400 spaces to accommodate the residents, the office space, the George Street Playhouse, the Crossroads Theatre Company, and the American Repertory Ballet.http://thecityofnewbrunswick.org/blog/2017/03/08/exciting-changes-soon-begin-at-new-brunswick-cultural-center/

The Mayor of the city of New Brunswick since 1991, Mr. James Cahill, had the following to say regarding the development, “The New Brunswick Cultural Center Redevelopment Initiative will transform our existing theater district into a place where the arts may further grow and flourish. We are also working with Middlesex County and the Mason Gross School of the Arts to see what other opportunities this development might present, all ensuring a modern space for our talented artist community to create and share their craft with the world”.

The Artistic Director of the George Street Playhouse praised the initiatives of the development in the following, “This has been my dream for 20 years!  I am so grateful to Mayor Cahill, Chris Paladino, DEVCO, the Middlesex County Freeholders, and all involved in realizing this extraordinary new arts center. Personally, it is thrilling to finally offer our world-class artists who come to GSP a world-class facility in which to appear”.

As reported by Jack Murtha, reporter of local Middlesex County news group known as Tap into New Brunswick, The financing of the development includes an ordinance from the Board of Chosen Freeholders that relocated 17.5 million dollars to the project in the form of previously issued bonds, as well as 34 million dollars in loans adopted on June 15. The County has also agreed to commit 6 million dollars to the project, as well as 12 million dollars in exchange for office space. Many subsidiaries of DEVCO are expected to borrow money in order to finance the project. This includes the residential developer known as Pennrose Properties who is expected to borrow 47 million dollars from Citi Bank. The State Economic Development Authority is expected to include 40 million dollars in tax credits, as well as issue bonds so that the interest rate would not increase as much. The New Brunswick Parking Authority has also agreed to borrow 23 million dollars for the new parking deck for the site. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, has committed 17 million dollars to the project in a recent agreement https://www.tapinto.net/towns/new-brunswick/articles/county-commits-12m-to-new-brunswick-cultural-cen

As for more details on the specifics of designs of the project, Gary Wein of the local newsgroup New Jersey Stage, has reported that the two new state of the art theatres will include 465 seat lyric proscenium theatre for music, dance, opera, and drama theatre. There will also be an 86 foot stage, orchestra pit, tower for suspended stage scenery, trap system below stage, and the small theatre will be able to accommodate 253 people.

Regarding the affordability of the residential units, President of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, Mr. Chris Paladino, had the following to say, “We’re working with the Actors Guild with the goal of marketing the 20% affordable units towards people involved in the arts. Not only actors and musicians, but choreographers, poets, playwrights, visual artists, and people who work behind the scenes.  We’re hoping to be able to rent about 40 of those apartments to people who are actively involved in the arts professionally” https://www.newjerseystage.com/articles/getarticle.php?titlelink=new-brunswick-invests-in-the-arts

The history of the buildings where the New Brunswick Cultural Center is set to take the place includes the George Street Playhouse which was founded back in 1974 by Eric Krebs, a former Rutgers faculty member. Originally, the Playhouse was located at a repurposed supermarket on George Street, but ten years later in the fall of 1984 the location was moved to 9 Livingston Avenue, and slated to become the New Brunswick Cultural Center. Throughout the years, the Playhouse has fostered new artists and their work some of which have gone to premiere on Broadway, been nominated into the Drama Desk and Drama League, and won both Tony, as well as Pulitzer awards. Then in the summer of 2017, the Playhouse relocated to its temporary 2017-2018 location on 103 College Farm Road, the former location of the New Jersey Museum of Agriculture. This is its current location until the completion of the new 22 story high-rise building.

Image Source – George Street Playhouse

 

The George Street Playhouse’s Artistic Director, David Saint, and the Chairman, James N. Heston, have voiced their great appreciation for the project: “This has been our dream for 20 years! We are so grateful to the City of New Brunswick, DEVCO, the County of Middlesex, the State of New Jersey, the New Brunswick Cultural Center and all those involved in realizing this extraordinary new arts center. It is thrilling to offer our world-class artists a world-class theater facility in which to create. To paraphrase our popular hit musical The Toxic Avenger, “It’s a brand-new day in New Brunswick! We look forward to celebrating the grand opening of our brand-new theater in the fall of 2019!” https://georgestreetplayhouse.org/about/our-history/  The other building just recently demolished and will become a tenant in the New Brunswick Cultural Center, is the Crossroads Theatre. The theatre has been around since 1978 and has pride itself on advocating understanding and appreciation of all people with emphasis on the literary works regarding the African American experience. The beginning of the organization was fostered from the vision of two men, co-founders of the theatre are Ricardo Khan and L Kenneth Richarson, to create a place where actors can have “a substantive non-stereotypical” environment. Since its founding the Crossroads Theatre has become the birthplace of several famous pieces of work, some of which go on to become the world’s leading African American artists. One of the most famous organizations which originated in the Crossroads during the year 1986 was The Colored Museum which has been viewed by millions on national television. In addition, the Crossroads Theatre has won several recognitions and awards which includes recognition from Former President George Bush, Civil rights activists Rosa Parks and South African President Nelson Mandela. The theatre has also won such awards as the National Governors Association Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts, funding from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation, and The Ford Foundation, just to name a few. http://www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org/about

The following project is in one perspective a major milestone for the City of New Brunswick in that it is providing more career opportunities to the arts and theatre profession. In doing so, the new Cultural Center is expected to create more jobs, increase revenue for the city, revitalize the aging 25 year old buildings, and at the same time giving more people the opportunity to, not just get noticed for the works, but also express themselves creatively. In addition, the new Cultural Center is also allowing for additional entertainment and attraction to the city. However, the project is not without its flaws and its critics. As Jack Murtha, reporter of local Middlesex County news group known as Tap into New Brunswick, reported that the millions of dollars being committed to the project has raised questions among the residents who have concerns that the money would be better spent on improving the public transportation and the school systems.

In my opinion, this is a very important issue that highlights the city of New Brunswick’s, as well as the entire county’s concerning priorities, especially when it comes to development and planning. For the past few years, there have been a number of skyscrapers reshaping the skyline of the city of New Brunswick, most of them being hotels. Luxury hotels for those who can afford it. While at the same time, much of the city’s infrastructure is aging and deteriorating. The city’s water supply has been at the mercy of this, where residents have experienced unsanitary water coming out of their sinks, my family being one of many. Many public schools, such as the Lincoln Elementary School and the Roosevelt Elementary School have shown signs of water contamination, and overall an aging building. The basement of the Lincoln Elementary School that houses the cafeteria has the pipes on the ceiling completely exposed and the bathrooms are not sanitary at all, to the point that they are almost too unnerving to use. Along with that, many developers especially when building hotels, luxury apartments, and other high rise buildings, I feel have left out, what I believe one of the most important aspects of a successful community are. That is a unique architectural interior and exterior design such as the ones older buildings within the city were built with. An example of this would be the Condominium Complex high rise building located on One Spring Street which houses luxury apartments, the Bank of Princeton, and an Optical Boutique.

It is important to note that the New Brunswick Cultural Center presents a similar architectural phenomenon. Despite the attraction it could bring, the main architectural significance of the building so far appears as the high rise building and the uniquely placed large windows, much like the hotels, the recent Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital development, and previous high rise buildings have presented. In my opinion, one of the most important steps to revitalizing a deteriorating city is creating both interior and exterior architectural significance because it is an easy way to allow for not only greater attraction, but also a better neighborhood. I hope the New Brunswick Cultural Center accomplishes both of these goals.