Boston seeks new operator for Strand Theater as hub of Uphams Corner revitalization

“It’s a crown jewel in the neighborhood,” said Andrew Grace, director of economic and strategic planning for the city’s Economic Development Office.

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 refused to renew a 25-year lease with a community group that faced to allegations of mismanagement. The city, owner of the venue, took control of the day-to-day running of the theater and looked for a new operator, but found itself empty. The high cost of running a theater is a chronic problem, two Boston entertainment veterans said, 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 neighboring site from a parking lot and former bank building into a new library branch and low-cost commercial space topped with affordable housing.

According to the city’s specifications, two-thirds of the accommodation would be reserved for medium and low-income households, and some would be reserved for artists. The twinning of housing and a public library is new to Boston, but the concept has been implemented elsewhere, including Chicago and San Francisco. Proposals that need municipal funding to keep 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 on their ideas for the area. The deadline for submitting proposals is December 23.

The plan to redo Uphams Corner, including its business center at the intersection of Columbia Road and Dudley Street, also includes building affordable housing and commercial space in a municipal parking lot on Hamlet Street. In May, Dudley Neighbors Inc. selected two local organizations to build affordable rental housing, as well as artist and commercial space, on a site across from the Strand.

“This is the city driving 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 was previously the city’s head of economic development.

Boston’s arts and culture chief Kara Elliott-Ortega said the city wanted to find a private operator that will keep the Strand “open all the time” and offer the “full picture” of what the area deserves in its flagship destination. Municipal government, she said, is not best equipped for this long-term role.

“Cities are changing,” said Elliott-Ortega. “We want this to have a life that continues, no matter what happens in the city of Boston … at City Hall.”

But the city’s search for a new flight attendant is complicated by a pandemic that has endangered artistic organizations. Earlier this year, the Strand was used as a COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution site. Over the next few months, it hosts a digital art exhibition featuring the work of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.

Barros acknowledged that the pandemic must be a consideration for the future of the Strand. Documents describing the city’s search for a new operator mention “flexibility” in light of the pandemic’s toll on the live events industry.

“We had great conversations with organizations before the pandemic, but I continue to hear from organizations that there is still interest,” he said. “It is comforting.”

Over the past two decades, the city has invested around $ 20 million in the location, Elliott-Ortega said. The renovations included accessibility improvements, fire prevention measures, and improvements to changing rooms and mechanical systems, although Grace said the theater “still needed a little polish.”

Although great artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Tracy Chapman, BB King and LL Cool J have graced the Strand scene, he is best known today. as an affordable option for community organizations and schools looking to host events and performances.

The next operator is to offer affordable programming and opportunities for young people, according to city documents. If the city concludes that no candidate is suitable to manage the component, it may 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 teens in technical areas such as lighting and sound production and hope the young people will continue to have a home there.

“It is really essential that you involve young people in your thinking about space,” said Ann Sousa, executive director of the association.

Over the years, city ​​leaders 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 said, “We are going to save the Strand! Six years later, Mayor Martin J. Walsh launched his mayoral campaign and organized a rally on the eve of Election Day.

Terryl Calloway, an entertainment producer in Boston, said “the city has been the crutch to keep the Strand going” and expressed skepticism about his plans to relinquish control of day-to-day operations. The Strand needs a board of directors and more community involvement, he said, but shouldn’t be run by the private sector.

“It’s a gem of a place. We should be happy to have it, ”Calloway said. “We just need to focus on that. No one focused on making it work collectively.

City authorities agree the component must be better promoted.

“It’s not easy to find information about the Strand, upcoming performances or how to buy tickets,” the city wrote in its call for proposals. “A new operator can solve this problem by implementing centralized ticketing and consistent marketing. “

Elsewhere in Uphams Corner, the effort to forge an affordable arts and innovation district recently won.

Humphrey Street Studios artists, who feared losing their workspace when their owners agreed to sell the building to a Weston company, have been granted a stay. The original deal has been canceled and now the sellers are negotiating the terms of purchase of the property with a development team assembled by the artists, said Cristina Todesco, theater designer and tenant.

Affordable housing projects are also finding an echo as prices skyrocket across the city. A 2018 report says households in Uphams Corner lag behind the rest of the city in terms of income, with around 57% of households earning less than $ 50,000 per year.

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 he lived in the neighborhood, Spence said he saw residents move away as buildings rose from vacant lots or as new buyers bought existing properties. . Revitalization efforts, he said, should be aimed at improving the lives of residents who have lived in Uphams Corner for years.

“The real estate people come and buy it and then the price skyrockets,” he said as he walked the couple’s dog down Columbia Road. “Then it’s like, fuck.” [Residents] can no longer live there. They have to move, find another place to live.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.

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