Rutgers to partner with development co., city on new arts center

A new performing arts center, apartments and a parking garage are planned for downtown New Brunswick. Image: Elkus Manfredi Architects.

Rutgers University will partner with several other agencies to build a performing arts center in downtown New Brunswick that will replace the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre.

School officials said the space will allow the Mason Gross School of the Arts to launch a musical theater program and expand its opera program. Mason Gross leaders have wanted to launch a musical theater program for many years, but school officials said those plans have been delayed due to a need for a fully equipped production house.

“Rutgers students will have the opportunity to perform for a downtown audience, right next to a professional presenting house, the State Theatre,” said Mason Gross School of the Arts Dean George Stauffer. “For New Jerseyans, it gives them the chance to see our students perform in a first-class setting.”

The Rutgers Board of Governors recently voted to invest in the 60,000-square-foot New Brunswick Performing Arts Center as a partial owner. The new facility will be part of a 450,000-square-foot development that also will include office space and residential units.

Construction is expected to begin in August, following demolition of the two existing theater spaces beginning next month. School officials said the arts center is expected to open for the fall 2019 semester, when Mason Gross will launch its musical theater program. Rutgers is working with the George Street Playhouse to find university locations to stage performances during the two-year construction project, school officials said.

Rutgers is partnering with the New Brunswick Development Corporation and the New Brunswick Cultural Center on the $60 million project. The university will pay $17 million of the construction costs – $10 million from Mason Gross fundraising and $7 million from university reserves and short-term borrowing, said Antonio Calcado, executive vice president for strategic planning and operations at Rutgers.

The center will feature two theater spaces, including a 465-seat theater designed to accommodate musical theater, dance, opera and dramatic theater, with an 86-foot stage and an orchestra pit. It also will include a tower for suspended stage scenery and equipment and a trap system below the stage used for scenery effects. The smaller theater will seat 253 people and is designed for theatrical performances, smaller dance performances, lectures, community and musical events. Three rehearsal spaces will free the main venues for more scheduled performances.

Officials estimate that the new center will draw an additional 80,000 arts patrons to the city’s cultural center, which already brings in 400,000 people a year.

“This arts campus will serve as a rich haven of creation and culture, allowing for our partner agencies to grow their programs and performances and reach wider audiences than ever before,” said New Brunswick Mayor Jim Cahill. “Our collaboration with the university community brings an exciting element to this plan and strengthens our melding of public and private collaboration to yield a modern and sensational product.”

Along with the arts center, the redevelopment project is expected to include: a 30,000 square feet of office space housing Middlesex County arts organization;  207-unit, 18-story residential rental apartment tower; and a 344-space parking garage on an existing parking lot on Bayard Street, currently owned by the New Brunswick Cultural Center and TD Bank.

Project partners include the city of New Brunswick, Middlesex County, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Pennrose Properties and the New Brunswick Parking Authority.

The American Repertory Ballet/Princeton Ballet School plans to be a resident member of  the new performing arts complex. The ballet plans to house administrative offices, rehearsal space for the performing company, and two studio spaces at the center. The ballet school will maintain  Princeton and Cranbury studio operations. Interim offices and studios will relocate to 80 Albany Street, the organization’s prior headquarters, while the two-and-a-half-year New Brunswick construction project is being completed.