Deep into the 1918 flu pandemic, the Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner celebrated its opening night on Nov. 11 with a resplendent gala amid jubilation over the end of World War I.
A century later, amid another deadly pandemic, the former movie house is headed into a new era. This time around, the city has cast the Dorchester landmark for a starring role in its longstanding efforts to attract development to the business district. The city’s latest blueprint is to establish Uphams Corner as a hub for arts and innovation, revitalizing the area while trying to keep the forces of gentrification at bay.
“This is a crown jewel in the neighborhood,” said Andrew Grace, director of economic and strategic planning for the city’s Office of Economic Development.
In this new phase, the city intends to find a new operator for the 1,400-seat theater for the first time since 2004, when it declined to renew a 25-year lease with a community group that was facing allegations of mismanagement. The city, which owns the venue, took control of the theater’s daily management and looked for a new operator, but came up empty. The high cost of running a theater is a chronic issue, said two Boston entertainment veterans, and the city has stabilized the Strand.
Seventeen years later, the city wants the new operator to join a development team that would transform the nearby site of a parking lot and former bank building into a new branch library and low-cost commercial space topped by affordable housing.
Under the city’s specifications, two-thirds of the units would be reserved for middle- and low-income households, and some would be set aside for artists. Pairing housing and a public library is new for Boston, but the concept has been implemented elsewhere, including Chicago and San Francisco. Proposals that need municipal funding to keep the units affordable and pay for construction will be considered, the city said.
The city launched its search for the development team last month after consulting residents for years about their ideas for the area. The deadline for submitting proposals is Dec. 23.
The plan to remake Uphams Corner, especially its business center at the intersection of Columbia Road and Dudley Street, also includes building affordable housing and commercial space on a municipal parking lot on Hamlet Street. In May, Dudley Neighbors Inc. selected two local organizations to build affordable rental units, and artist and commercial space, at a site across the street from the Strand.
“This is the city pushing the community’s plan forward so that we can implement what the community wants to do with Uphams Corner,” said John Barros, a neighborhood resident and former mayoral candidate who previously served as the city’s chief of economic development.
Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston’s chief of arts and culture, said the city wants to find a private operator who will keep the Strand “open all the time” and deliver the “full vision” of what the area deserves in its signature destination. City government, she said, isn’t best equipped for that long-term role.
“Cities change,” Elliott-Ortega said. “We want this to be able to have a life that continues, no matter what’s going on in the city of Boston ... in City Hall.”
But the city’s search for a new steward is complicated by a pandemic that has imperiled arts organizations. Earlier this year, the Strand was used as a COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution site. For the next several months, it is hosting a digital art exhibition featuring the work of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
Barros acknowledged that the pandemic has to be a consideration for the Strand’s future. Documents outlining the city’s search for finding a new operator mention “flexibility” in light of the pandemic’s toll on the live events industry.
“We had great conversations with organizations pre-pandemic, but I continue to hear from organizations that there’s still interest,” he said. “That’s comforting.”
Over the past two decades, the city has invested about $20 million into the venue, Elliott-Ortega said. Renovations included accessibility upgrades, fire prevention measures, and improvements to dressing rooms and mechanical systems, though Grace said the theater still “needs some polishing.”
Although major entertainers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Tracy Chapman, B.B. King, and LL Cool J have graced the Strand stage, it’s best known today as an affordable option for community organizations and schools seeking to host events and performances.
The next operator must offer affordable programming and opportunities for youth, according to city documents. If the city concludes that no applicants are fit to run the Strand, it can decide not to award the proposed 10-year lease but proceed with the rest of the project.
Brighter Boston Inc has used the Strand to train teenagers in technical fields like lighting and sound production and hopes young people will continue to have a home there.
“It’s really critical that you’re involving youth as you’re thinking about the space,” said Ann Sousa, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Over the years, city leaders have celebrated the Strand as a symbol of Boston. In 2007, Mayor Thomas M. Menino delivered his annual State of the City address at the theater and declared: “We are going to save the Strand!” Six years later, Mayor Martin J. Walsh kicked off his mayoral campaign there and hosted a rally on the eve of Election Day.
Terryl Calloway, an entertainment producer in Boston, said the “city has been the crutch to hold up the Strand” and expressed skepticism over its plans to relinquish control of daily operations. The Strand needs a board of directors and more community involvement, he said, but should not be privately run.
“It’s a gem of a venue. We should be happy to have it,” Calloway said. “We just need to focus on it. No one has focused on collectively making it work.”
City officials agree the Strand needs to be promoted better.
“It is not easy to find information about the Strand, upcoming performances, or how to buy tickets,” the city wrote in its solicitation for proposals. “A new operator can address this by implementing centralized ticketing and consistent marketing.”
Elsewhere in Uphams Corner, the effort to forge an affordable arts and innovation district recently notched a victory.
Artists at Humphrey Street Studios, who feared losing their workspace when their landlords agreed to sell the building to a company in Weston, have won a reprieve. The original deal was called off and now the sellers are negotiating terms to buy the property with a development team assembled by the artists, said Cristina Todesco, a theater set designer and tenant.
Plans for affordable housing also resonate as prices soar citywide. A 2018 report said households in Uphams Corner lag behind the rest of the city in terms of income, with about 57 percent of households earning less than $50,000 annually.
Jules Raposo and Mason Spence are fashion designers who run Esprit de Corps Studio from their Uphams Corner residence.
In the year and a half that he’s lived in the neighborhood, Spence said he has seen residents move away as buildings rise from vacant lots or new buyers purchase existing properties. Revitalization efforts, he said, should be aimed at improving life for residents who have called Uphams Corner home for years.
“Real estate people come and buy it out and then the price goes through the roof,” he said while walking the couple’s dog on Columbia Road. “Then it’s like, damn. [Residents] can’t live there anymore. They got to move out, find somewhere else to live.”