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State-of-the-art, $190M arts center coming to New Brunswick

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A rendering of the planned New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
A rendering of the planned New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. - ()

The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, a world-class facility that will host four companies in a state-of-the-art 22-story building that features two theaters, three rehearsal stages and 240 apartments in the heart of the city, is close to becoming a reality.

The project, which has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, will break ground this summer with a goal of opening in the summer of 2019, developer Chris Paladino, the president of New Brunswick Development Corp., told NJBIZ.

The project, which Paladino calls the “biggest public-private partnership in state history,” will cost $190 million.

The building will go up across the street from the Heldrich Hotel, on the spot that currently houses the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre. Those two companies will be joined at the new facility by the American Repertory Ballet and the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, Paladino said.

Paladino said two meetings in the coming days will finalize the project. Rutgers University is expected to announce the move of Mason Gross performances following a meeting of its Board of Governors on Thursday. And a final planning board meeting in New Brunswick is expected to give the final municipal land use approval April 10, he said.

Paladino said a demolition of the area will begin June 5, with a formal groundbreaking scheduled for August.

Paladino compared the building’s design and concept to arts centers in New York City and elsewhere. He said it will be “totally state of the art,” and built in a way to maximize the number of performances — and, thus, visitors — to the area.

“On the ground floor, we’re building a lyric theater and a second stage, with a residential lobby, office lobby and theater lobby,” he said.

One of the keys, he said, is to have a shared lobby for two theaters, which will seat 485 and 300 people, respectively.

“From a design standpoint, we’ve got one lobby, because you want those audiences mixing,” he said. “You want people saying, ‘Hey, what’s going on over there, maybe we’ll go to that next weekend.’ A lot of theaters in New York do that, where they have several theaters off one lobby.”

Paladino said there will be plenty of nights of audiences because of what’s on the second floor, where there will be three rehearsal spaces, two of which copy the layouts of the theatres below.

“The thing that’s going to really make this work is that we have another floor of studio space,” he said. “Since these rehearsal studios match the size of the stages, you don’t have to waste time allowing people to rehearse on the stage. They rehearse there until they are ready to do tech and then they move to the main stage. We figure we pick up 80 performance nights because of the building layout.”

A rendering of one of the two theaters at the planned New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
A rendering of one of the two theaters at the planned New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. - ()

The fly space, or the area well above the stage, is another factor enabling the center to have more live performances, he said.

“We have an 80-foot fly and an orchestra pit that can have 50 players in it, so you can do opera,” Paladino said. “The huge fly space also allows you to have scenery that you can take up and put down. If you’re not performing on a Monday night, you can take up the stage and do a comedy performance or something else.

“What happens with older theaters is, you build a set on the stage and it’s always there and then you can’t do anything else.”

Paladino estimates that the building’s design will encourage another 40,000 people to annually attend performances.

Some of those visitors may never leave. Some 240 one- and two-bedroom apartment units are being built to help pay for the building.

To serve the residents, the third floor will be amenities, with a fitness room, yoga studio, demonstration kitchen, massive communal living room space and a co-working space, Paladino said. A pool will be on the roof, he said.

Paladino said one-bedroom units figure to go for approximately $2,200 a month, with two-bedroom units going for $3,000.

Paladino said he expects to attract a lot of empty-nesters to the units. The biggest draw, however, will be the design elements of the arts center.

“It’s totally tripped out from a technological standpoint,” he said. “Totally state-of-the-art technical grid and catwalks.”

There appear to be plenty of companies eager to use the facility.

“This is going to be a new performance venue for both George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre,” he said. “The American Repertory Ballet, which currently does not have a home, is going to make this their home. In fact, in the parking garage, we’re building studio space so they can expand.”

And then there’s the tie to the university. Paladino said having the Mason Gross School of the Arts as a partner is win for all involved.

“Getting Rutgers to have its performances based downtown is great for the city, but it’s just as important for the students to be working in a professional theater alongside professional actors and stagehands,” he said. “That opportunity to be in a professional environment is priceless.”

And while Mason Gross will perform in the spaces quite often, it will not be abandoning its current performing, exhibition and rehearsal spaces at Civic Square and over at 85 George St. on Douglass Campus. The school’s administration also will not relocate.

Paladino was quick to note the Rutgers programs will be able to perform at the same high level as the others.

“Mason Gross has an extraordinary reputation,” he said. “So, we’re not doing them a favor; they are doing us a favor in being here.”

Paladino, who has envisioned the project for more than a decade, credited the willingness of so many to work together to make it a reality.

In total, the project is receiving support in the amount of $90.5 million: $40 million in Economic Redevelopment & Growth funds from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, $17 million from Rutgers University, $15 million in redevelopment area bonds, $6 million from the County of Middlesex Cultural Arts Fund, $6 million from New Market Tax Credits, $4.5 million from The New Brunswick Cultural Center and $2 million in air rights payments.

Additional money for the project will come from developer equity, debt raised by the private-sector partner, and bond proceeds from the New Brunswick Parking Authority.

Elkus Manfredi will serve as the architects.

“It really is probably the biggest public-private partnership in New Jersey, when you think of who is involved in it,” he said. “It’s Middlesex County, it’s the city of New Brunswick, it’s the state. Everybody has been involved in it. And with the help of the governor and the Senate president, we were able to get special additional ERG allocations added to EDA for this project, which really made this thing work.

“That’s really the formula. You get everybody to get engaged.”

Then build a center that’s the center of it all, he said.

Paladino said the design of the bottom floors will bring a new ambiance to New Brunswick.

“The studios will always be lit,” he said. “Kind of like Alvin Ailey in New York with a little bit of Lincoln Center and the newer buildings there.

“It will really make this an exciting place.”

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