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The next stage

A performing arts center offers a new focus for New Brunswick

New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. – AARON HOUSTON

The $172 million New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, two years in the making, opened its doors to the public with an invitation-only reception on Sept. 4 and a ribbon-cutting ceremony the day after. The events also marked the start of a 10-day production of “Paul Robeson” by the Crossroads Theater Co. at the new venue, the start of a performing arts season stretching to June 2020.

City and state officials broke ground on NBPAC’s construction in 2017 and AJD Construction Co. finished the project in 23 months.

In addition to the Crossroads company, NBPAC will be home to the George Street Playhouse, the American Repertory Ballet and performance and rehearsal spaces for Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. The building rises 23 stories over downtown New Brunswick; 18 of the floors are luxury apartments.

Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater in New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. - AARON HOUSTON

Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater in New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. – AARON HOUSTON

The theater complex includes the 463-seat Elizabeth Ross Johnson Theater and the 252-seat Arthur Laurents Theater, both of which are proscenium-style spaces that will be used by the four tenants.

George Street Playhouse Artistic Director David Saint said some of the rehearsal studios, such as the lounge overlooking New Brunswick’s Monument Square, could be converted into much smaller performance spaces for more local arts groups, with seating for just a few dozen audience members allowing more intimate performances.

All four resident tenants will share the main entrance lounge, which both Saint and New Brunswick Development Corp. President Chris Paladino said is by design.

Lobby of New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.

Lobby of New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. – AARON HOUSTON

“The lobby, when it’s filled with people from both theaters, it should be a buzz of activity,” Saint said during a Sept. 4 tour of the property.

“It’s a huge marketing opportunity,” Paladino added at the tour. “If someone’s here to see the ballet and they talk to someone who’s seen a George Street production, then maybe next week they’ll come back” for the George Street Playhouse showing.

The added benefit, Paladino said, is that the activity inside the NBPAC building spills out onto the streetscape – New Brunswick’s Monument Square –attracting the attention and pique of passersby.

“What you really hope [is] that during the day people are walking to work, they’re on lunch, they’re kind of curious about what’s going on, there’s a ballet being rehearsed, there’s someone at a piano… We wanted to really bring what’s going on in this building out onto the street,” Paladino said during the same tour.

Potentially, Paladino added, “there’s a kid walking to school, maybe it does something to kind of energize them and make them curious about the arts.”

Paladino said he hopes this is the final residence for the two theaters, both longtime arts centerpieces in the city, as well as the American Repertory Ballet.

“The George Street Playhouse, this will be their third home in New Brunswick. They started out in a grocery store on George Street, they retrofitted the YMCA, this, we hope, will be the third and last time in New Brunswick,” Paladino told NJBIZ prior to the opening.

Crossroads, Paladino said, jumped across the city several times over the past decades before finally arriving at the NBPAC.

NBPAC is a public-private partnership between DEVCO, the New Brunswick Parking Authority, Rutgers University, Middlesex County, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Pennrose Properties, several of which provided large chunks of the project’s funding.

The price tag for the theater complex was $60.3 million, while the residential tower was $77.8 million, the 344-space parking deck was $21.3 million and the Middlesex County office space was $12.8 million.

“We’re expecting an additional $25 million economic impact annually,” Paladino said. “From parking to hotel rooms to restaurants to ticket sales.”

The county will run the newly formed Arts Institute of Middlesex County, an office within the NBPAC, to centralize arts and culture projects and events from the county’s roughly 800,000 residents.

Pennrose will rent out 207 units on 19 floors above the offices and theater space, 20 percent of which will be set aside for affordable housing and the rest being rented at market rates.

The apartments include studio, one and two bedroom units, many of them featuring floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city’s skyline.

Rehearsal space in New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. - AARON

Rehearsal space in New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. – AARON HOUSTON

Topping the NBPAC building is a penthouse for residents, featuring rooftop lounges and a swimming pool.

“The views of New York City, the Raritan River, all across Rutgers, it’s pretty impressive,” Pennrose Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard Barnhart told NJBIZ before the opening.

Barnhart said that Pennrose is shooting for tenants to move in by the end of September, though the priority was the completion of the two theaters.

“We’re really pushing hard just to get the theaters complete,” Barnhart said. “When somebody says two years ago there’s a performance on Sept. 5, you’ve got to stick with that.”

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Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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