As Theater Demolition Progresses, New Brunswick Looks Toward the Future

Workers tear down the Crossroads Theatre this week, as seen from Bayard Street. Its longtime neighbor, the George Street Playhouse, is all but gone.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Walk around downtown New Brunswick during any workday and you'll hear it: the sounds of a changing city.

Workers, perched on cranes and manning excavators, tear into buildings and rubble off Livingston Avenue. Heavy machinery roars, and tumbling building materials rumble. The scatterbrained noise tells passersby that something is going on here.

And that something is the demolition of two heralded New Brunswick venues, the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre. The Playhouse is now all but gone. The Crossroads still stands, but its facade is compromised, parts of it resembling a jagged shark bite.

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The two buildings are coming down to make way for the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The 22-story high-rise will feature two top-notch theaters, rehearsal spaces, offices, more than 200 luxury apartments and, in the rear off Bayard Street, a connected parking garage.

What officials and arts leaders have dreamed of for more than a decade is now coming to fruition. And demolition, which officials said began roughly one month ago, is the first concrete step toward what they hope will be an even better New Brunswick arts scene.

“With every project we do, we think it's going to be the project with the greatest impact—because so many are transformational, and others have had an extraordinary impact on the city,” Christopher Paladino, head of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, or Devco, the redeveloper for this initiative, told TAPinto New Brunswick. “I certainly feel the same way about this project.”

The George Street Playhouse once stood here, its marquee flanked by the trees.

But before anything new goes up, the old must come down.

Devco expects demolition to be completed by the end of this month. Immediately afterward, it plans for workers to begin digging the foundation of the new performing arts center. By mid-September, Paladino said, the project should enter “major construction mode,” with a groundbreaking ceremony targeted for early October.

That fast pace is no accident.

“We have no choice. We have deadlines with respect to our financing,” Paladino said. “We're going to build almost half a million square feet in 22 months.”

Because the mixed-use project uses state tax credits, amid a web of other financial arrangements, the building must be opened by summer 2019, according to officials. That means, in just a couple of months, the area near Livingston Avenue and George Street will become a breathing, buzzing construction site, teeming with masons, bricklayers and iron workers, Paladino said.

Just a few months ago, the Crossroads Theatre was busy putting on shows here.

And in just 12 days, on Aug. 23, he added, the partners in the sprawling project—from Devco and the city itself to Rutgers University and the New Brunswick Cultural Center—expect to close on the financing.

Nearly all of the construction documents are completed. The design work that remains touches mostly on cosmetics, like the look of the theaters' shared lobby, and which colors and fabrics to use, Paladino said.

But the big-picture stuff is in the books.

David Saint, George Street Playhouse's artistic director of 21 years, wasn't exactly sad to see his company's former home destroyed. The old theater—a former YMCA building—offered more problems than it did charm, he said.

The coming performing arts center, meanwhile, could prove a world-class home for Saint and his theater company—and whomever else chooses to host shows there. The American Repertory Ballet, for instance, already announced that it will move into the tower. Rutgers' Mason Gross will also hold performances there.

The remains of the George Street Playhouse.

Given New Brunswick's proximity to New York, it's quite possible that top talents in theater will choose to host early openings of plays bound for Broadway right here, in the Hub City, Saint said.

“It's been a long time coming, and I'm more than excited,” he told TAPinto New Brunswick. “I'm really walking on air about it.”

This point in time reminds Saint of when a top architect flew over New Brunswick many years ago at the request of John Heldrich, a legendary Johnson & Johnson executive who has since died. The architect pointed to a triangle carved out by three roads—Livingston, George and New Street—and declared it a magnet that should house the city's arts center, Saint said.

Decades later, and that arts center remains in the precise spot. But after just a month of demolition work, it's clear that its future won't look much like its past.

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