Bowing to civic pressure, Seaport developer plans for theaters
Bowing to pressure from City Hall and arts groups, the owner of the last big undeveloped swath of the Seaport has made significant changes to its plans for the booming business district — including the addition of three new theaters.
WS Development on Tuesday filed documents with the city indicating it would create a Seaport Performing Arts Center — with two venues totaling 650 seats — on Summer Street and a third “community theater” elsewhere in its 12.5-acre Seaport Square site. It would also add green space and dedicated storefronts for startups and small businesses and extend its lease with popular District Hall through 2033.
The project would fill a big gap — currently parking lots — between Summer Street and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the Seaport’s waterfront and represents the last big chance to put major buildings in the heart of Boston’s newest neighborhood. WS Development’s latest tweaks are a bid to address concerns that the plan won’t add enough civic amenities to a place many say is starved for them.
Yanni Tsipis, a senior vice president at the company, said its executives have been listening to the critics, and have changed their plans accordingly.
“We have tried to be very responsive to both city agency comments and public comments on a wide variety of issues,” Tsipis said.
Perhaps the biggest sticking point has been the theater.
When it filed plans in February to add office space and housing, WS dropped an earlier agreement to include a 200,000 square-foot performing arts center — a plan the city had signed off on in 2010. The developer said it had determined there was too little demand for such a complex. That sparked an outcry from arts groups, who said that while there may not be a need for a facility that large, the city has too few venues for groups that require 250 to 1,000 seats.
In June, the Boston Planning & Development Agency said it agreed and urged WS to study adding an 800-seat theater, a 500-seat theater, and two smaller theaters, as well as establishing an endowment to help fund their operation.
The plans filed Tuesday were WS Development’s response. An 800-seat theater, they wrote, would be difficult to build and “impossible to finance” in any of the planned buildings. Instead, they proposed the Seaport Performing Arts Center, or SeaPAC, with 500- and 150-seat theaters, as well as a low-cost, flexible community theater of 100 to 150 seats on an adjacent block. The company said it will seek outside partners to help manage the theaters.
“Our hope and aspiration is that those venues will be active as many nights as possible,” Tsipis said.
It was not clear whether that approach will satisfy the BPDA, which first approved plans for Seaport Square, a 23-acre complex of high-end housing and office towers, seven years ago and has allowed amendments several times since. In 2015, WS Development paid $359 million to buy the undeveloped half of the site, where it wants to add 1.3 million square feet of office space and housing to the original plan.
A spokeswoman said BPDA officials were still digesting the proposed changes Tuesday.
The Boston Lyric Opera, which is homeless after a long run at the Schubert Theater, had called for a larger venue. On Tuesday, general and artistic director Esther Nelson called the latest proposal a step in the right direction.
“It encourages us that Boston continues its conversation about new cultural performance and rehearsal spaces,” she said in an e-mail. “What’s missing, however, is an opportunity to develop a world-class, state-of-the-art facility that meets the needs of, and provides a home for, smaller groups and the city’s larger performing arts companies (and employers) like Boston Lyric Opera.”
But the venues WS Development is proposing could help mid-size arts groups in Boston find a home, said Gary Dunning, executive director of the Celebrity Series of Boston, which uses a range of venues around town.
“You basically go from 250 seats up to 1,000 or more and there’s nothing in between,” Dunning said. “There’s just a big gaping hole in the middle. This would give multiple organizations some flexibility.”
WS Development is also revising its proposals for park space. New plans filed Tuesday show that a central plaza called Harbor Square would be made greener and grow to cover 1.5 acres. The company also agreed to lower the height of a proposed eight-story building between Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue and said it will add a public roof garden.
But the original plan for an even larger park on that same block — where District Hall is located — was not revived. Instead, WS plans to extend District Hall’s lease.
That was good news to Brian Dacey, president of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which helps run the facility. District Hall was envisioned as a temporary amenity when the Seaport began to develop but quickly became one of its most popular destinations.
“We’re really pleased that they want to keep District Hall as an ongoing entity,” Dacey said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into coming up with a concept and putting it in place. And it’s fair to say it has succeeded far beyond our original ambition.”
In addition, WS Development is pledging to set aside storefronts for startups and other small businesses, has promised $2.5 million over 10 years to fund water ferries or expanded Silver Line service to the Seaport, and says it will elevate most of the buildings it proposes to three feet above 500-year flood levels.
The plan will now go back to BPDA for further review.