The New Brunswick Performing Arts Center in New Brunswick — Courtesy: New Brunswick Development Corp.
By Joshua Burd
The long-awaited New Brunswick Performing Arts Center has opened its doors, marking the debut of a $172 million, mixed-use project that is poised to transform the city’s acclaimed arts district.
A crowd of stakeholders, supporters and dignitaries on Wednesday packed the lobby of the 23-story building on Livingston Avenue, which has brought new performance venues, more than 200 apartments and office space to downtown New Brunswick. The milestone follows some 22 months of construction and results from a complex array of private and public financing sources, a partnership that was celebrated during a grand opening ceremony.
“Tonight is all about the arts, community, partnership and leadership,” said Chris Paladino, the president of New Brunswick Development Corp., the organization behind the 450,000-square-foot project and so many other high-profile developments in the city.
Designed by Elkus Manfredi Architects, the complex occupies the site of the former George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theater. It is now the home of both theater companies, which are longtime fixtures in the city, along with the American Repertory Ballet and Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
The groups benefit from two state-of-the-art theaters and rehearsal studios, while maintaining office space alongside the offices for Middlesex County’s arts, culture and heritage organizations. The luxury residential tower that sits atop the venue, owned and operated by Pennrose LLC, includes a 20 percent set-aside for affordable units and amenities such as an outdoor roof deck, a demonstration kitchen, work space and a fitness center.
Stakeholders on Wednesday highlighted the new addition to New Brunswick’s downtown arts district, already one of the best-known in the state. But they also touted NBPAC as a groundbreaking project for the city and the latest milestone in more than decades of economic revival.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, a lifelong Middlesex County resident, called it “the next step in the renaissance that is New Brunswick.”
“There was a time when New Brunswick wasn’t a place where you talked about coming for dinner or spending time with your friends,” Coughlin said. “It’s just the opposite right now. It is the best example of what redevelopment can do, of what commitment can do and what a special place you can truly build if you push all in the right direction.”
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi echoed that sentiment, highlighting NBPAC as a strong example of how public-private partnerships should work and a “tremendous resource” for Mason Gross and other members of the arts community. He also touted its broader impact on New Brunswick, which he said is a product of Devco’s ongoing work in the city.
“This project is transforming the city of New Brunswick and is adding to the things that you’ve already done here,” Barchi said. “When my alumni come back — many of them not having seen Rutgers New Brunswick in five years, 10 years or 20 years — they say, ‘I don’t believe it — this isn’t the same old Rutgers.’ And my comment to them is, ‘Yeah, it’s not the same old Rutgers. It’s not the same old New Brunswick, either.’
“And it’s a combination of the dynamism that we see now in this new and growing New Brunswick and the old and growing Rutgers University that’s making it an attraction, a draw, bringing some of the best students here, attracting some of the best faculty here.”
Along with participation by Devco and Pennrose, the financing package for NBPAC includes Pillar Financial/Fannie Mae, Citibank, Investors Bank, Aegon and Rutgers University, which helped complete the transaction alongside private equity sources. The project also involves a long list of other stakeholders: the city of New Brunswick, Middlesex County, the state Economic Development Authority, New Brunswick Cultural Center and the New Brunswick Parking Authority.
The most high-profile among those funding sources is a $40 million tax credit under the state’s Economic Redevelopment and Growth program, which was authorized in 2016 last year by special legislation. To that end, Paladino highlighted the support of key state officials including Senate President Steve Sweeney, who helped bring the project to fruition.
“He supported us, he solved problems for us and he was there throughout construction,” Paladino said. “He came on tours and gave encouragement to the working men and women of the trades.
“And he truly understands that access to talented and creative people is to the modern economy what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking back in the day. It’s crystal clear that, without his resolve, we would not be here tonight.”
Paladino heaped similar praise on New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, describing him as a problem-solver and a champion of the arts. It should come as no surprise, he said, that the mayor “has also served as the motivator-in-chief” for a performing arts center that is a decade in the making.
Cahill, in turn, complimented Paladino and his team on Devco’s history of projects and their “truly immeasurable” impact on the city, arguing that the impact of its latest development cannot be understated.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the resurgence of New Brunswick has run a parallel course with the emergence and the growth of our arts community,” Cahill said. “The arts have been a transformative force, serving as an economic engine and fueling the heart and soul of our community.”