A building that began as a car dealership on Commonwealth Avenue’s old Automobile Row — and later housed a golf shop and a bicycle dealer — is about to be transformed into a hub for visual journalism, cultural events and discussions, and political debates.
Public radio station WBUR says it will begin construction March 1 on CitySpace, a 240-seat multimedia space on the Boston University campus at 890 Commonwealth Ave., where it plans to host live radio programs and other events — possibly by the end of the year.
“This space is meant to serve a very specific purpose, which is to be the home of the public conversation of Boston,” WBUR general manager Charles Kravetz said. “This sort of space doesn’t exist anywhere in the city.”
The station, which is owned by BU, has raised $10 million to renovate the space adjacent to its headquarters on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and St. Paul Street near the Brookline/Boston line. It’s part of a strategic plan meant to recast WBUR as something that can be experienced online and in person, as well as on the radio.
The effort was boosted by a $2 million donation from the Barr Foundation. It’s the largest single financial gift WBUR has ever received.
“We’re investing in the concept and we’re compelled by the idea,” said Jim Canales, president of the Boston-based foundation. “On a broader level, what we’re interested in is how this facility can serve as a way to stimulate civic engagement [and] encourage public conversation on the many problems and challenges facing the region.”
By taking over a prime location on a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue where foot traffic reaches about 10,000 — mostly — young people a day, WBUR hopes to expand its audience in a way that it currently can’t from the station’s third-floor perch on St. Paul Street. Construction is expected to take nine to 10 months, which would mean a December or January opening.
The station wants to raise another $10 million for a programming fund that would support up to 200 events a year, all of which will be recorded with high-definition video equipment, streamed live, and archived for on-demand viewing, Kravetz said.
What CitySpace won’t be is a theatrical-only performance space or a place that will fund itself by constantly being rented out to private events, Kravetz said.
“This is an idea generator, not a money generator,” he said. “This is like, put your phones away, put your iPad away, sit here, and experience something. Be introduced to the great minds, the great thinkers, the great artists, the great scientists, the people who are tackling so many of the big, important, powerful issues of our time.”
Kravetz said he envisions CitySpace as the home for “live journalism, live narrative storytelling, and everything to do with the written word in every form, from book readings to author interviews to political debates.”
As designed by architectural firm Cambridge Seven Associates, the two-story space will be renovated to make room for a stage that can be raised and lowered with a hydraulic lift. Behind that will be a 9-foot-tall, 16-foot-long LED screen for presentations, including documentaries and films. Five high-definition cameras will be controlled robotically, as will all of the lights. The back of the space will include a catering kitchen and a green room for guests.
Floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing the sidewalk in the approximately 8,500-square-foot space will allow passersby full views of events in progress. WBUR will also set up benches and speakers outside so onlookers can listen in.
“A lot of what we do in radio, we’re going to be doing here in a personal way,” Kravetz said. “In the digital age, there’s a hunger for people, particularly a younger audience, to get out and experience things. This will be an opportunity to create those experiences.”