Huntington Ave. tower and theater plans revealed
The development group that purchased the BU Theatre complex, longtime home of the Huntington Theatre Company, filed plans Monday for a gleaming 32-story apartment building that would transform Huntington Avenue and the theater that bears its name.
The tower, which could house as many as 426 apartment units and provide ample retail space, is being proposed by developers QMG Huntington LLC in a deal that would give full ownership of the 870-seat playhouse to the Huntington Theatre Company.
Rising on a site adjacent to the theater that’s now occupied by two smaller buildings, the tower would include an airy two-floor lobby at its base, enabling the Huntington to offer enhanced patron amenities, a cafe, a bar, and flexible event space that could be used for lectures, community gatherings, and performances, including by outside groups.
“The final outcome is really a win-win for everyone,” said QMG Huntington developer John Matteson. “Our commitment has always been to ensure this institution never goes away.”
Matteson said he hoped to start construction on the project next year and complete it by late 2020. The proposal must first undergo a public review process before being approved by the Boston Planning & Development Agency directors, a process that could take several months.
Under terms of the proposed development, QMG would give the playhouse to the Huntington for $1, while the theater would enter a 99-year lease for $1 per year to operate the adjacent 14,000-square-foot lobby.
The Huntington would be responsible for refurbishing its 92-year-old theater, a project whose total cost could reach $70 million, managing director Michael Maso estimated.
“This is Huntington 3.0,” said Maso, who called the proposed development “a great solution.”
“This whole project for us is an enormous opportunity to expand the services we provide and the work that we do,” he said.
Maso said the new lobby’s first floor would house the theater’s new entrance, its box office, and a cafe open to the community throughout the day.
The lobby’s much larger second floor, featuring a balcony and visible from the street via a wall of windows, would house the 150-person-capacity event space, bar, and what Maso described as “lots of new restrooms.”
He added that the development and renovation would enable the Huntington to expand its programming throughout the year — possibly extending its season — while offering the new flexible space, the refurbished theater, and a rehearsal hall that might be used as a black-box stage by outside performance groups.
“It’s an opportunity to really become more a part of the community,” Maso said. “Our primary focus is serving the theater community and artists, but also making sure that we take the space and try to keep it filled all day long.”
The plan, made possible by a deal announced last June, is being celebrated by the Huntington, whose future seemed in limbo when Boston University announced in 2015 that it planned to sell the BU Theatre and two adjoining buildings. QMG Huntington purchased the three buildings the following year for $25 million.
It also comes at a crucial moment for Boston’s performing arts landscape, where many smaller organizations struggle to find performance venues and rehearsal spaces.
The Huntington has engaged the Cambridge firm Bruner/Cott & Associates to redesign the theater’s infrastructure, creating new public spaces and modernizing its theatrical and mechanical systems. Starting July 1, it will be renamed the Huntington Avenue Theatre.
Maso said the company has already moved its rehearsals, which previously took place in one of the adjacent buildings, into a service structure behind the theater that it might renovate or rebuild.
“That building won’t be sufficient to meet our long-term needs, and this is our opportunity to improve it,” Maso said. “There are lots of presenters in town who need space. We have a facility deficit, and we intend to be part of the solution.”
Joyce Linehan, chief of policy for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, voiced support for the project. “We are thrilled that the Huntington and the developer worked together so that the Huntington can stay where it belongs, on the Avenue of the Arts,” Linehan said in a statement. “The developer’s team understands what it means to protect civic and cultural space, and we are grateful to them for their vision. This is a perfect example of the ways in which we can leverage growth for the good of the city’s cultural life.”
The tower, being designed by the architectural firm Stantec, will likely house a two-story restaurant next door to the Huntington’s lobby. Matteson, who estimated the project’s total cost at “north of $200 million,” said the building would feature a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom units, while meeting affordable-housing requirements.
“What we really tried to work together on was an example for other developers to work with the city and the arts community to come up with a plan that’s a great outcome for everybody,” said Matteson, who thanked Walsh for his guidance on the project.
“The goal is to have an engaged streetscape and more importantly to have the theater meet all the [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements that it needs.”
Leah Camhi, executive director of the nonprofit Fenway Community Development Corporation, said the city was in dire need of more affordable housing.
“Is 32 stories a good idea? A little bit of that horse has already left the barn,” said Camhi, noting that several high-rises had gone up in the area recently. “But anything that’s going to provide more affordable housing is good for the community and good for Boston.”
The Huntington plans to remain in the current theater through the 2018-19 season.
“We would start our construction roughly a year after the developer starts theirs,” Maso said. “In my perfect world, we would have one year in which we would have to improvise large theater spaces, but we would open the ’20-21 season with our new space.”
Maso, who said the company previously had to work within the confines of BU’s academic calendar, added that the theater now has more scheduling freedom.
“The theater will be alive during the summer, that’s clear to us,” he said. “But the question of how much more programming we do, and how much of it is produced and how much of it is presented is something we’re in the process of planning right now.”
The company, whose endowment stands at roughly $24 million and whose annual budget hovers at around $14.5 million, has its work cut out for it. Its previous development project, the Calderwood Pavilion, required the company to raise $24 million in capital and endowment funds.
Maso estimated the new campaign could be three times bigger — up to $60 million in capital funds, and additional endowment dollars.
“We’re talking about a lot of money that we need to find,” said Maso, who’s been speaking privately with donors.
“We’re feeling excited and enormously ambitious here. It’s an expansive time.”