By Beth Treffeisen
The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) board voted to approve the proposed redevelopment of 254-264 Huntington Ave., which will include the renovation of the Huntington Avenue Theatre, and the theatre’s support wing as well as a new apartment building next to the theatre.
This approval sets in motion a donation by commercial developers QMG Huntington LLC of the historic Huntington Avenue Theatre, and its support wing to the Huntington Theatre Company for its ownership in perpetuity.
“This is a significant milestone for the Huntington,” said Michael Maso, the managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company. “We are now that much closer to realizing our ambition for a state-of-the-art theatre complex that provides modern comforts alongside classic architecture.”
In 2016, the theatre space was almost lost when Boston University sold the building to the QMG Huntington Limited developers. Original plans included building a 12-story residential complex that would have taken up the entire project site and eliminated the theatre.
But after talks with the City, the developers came to an agreement to use half the project site for their building at a taller height and gift the theatre and the annex to the Huntington Theatre Company, giving them a permanent home.
“This project will allow the Huntington to grow on everything they’ve done so far,” said Joyce Kulhawick, a longtime Boston art critic. “It is more than just the building. It is located on the cultural artery of the city, and it’s going to pump more life into the city. It is a path to inclusion, empathy, conversation, insight into the human condition and all of the things that divide us in a very turbulent time in our lives.
“It will be visual and welcome to everybody to come in and enjoy and I can’t wait to walk in through those doors.”
Celebrating its 35th season, the Huntington Theatre Company is Boston’s leading professional theatre and one of the region’s premier cultural assets since it was founded in 1982.
The Huntington has long been an anchor cultural institution of Huntington Ave., the Avenue of the Arts, and will remain so on a permanent basis with plans to convert the current theatre into a first-rate, modern venue with expanded services to audiences, artists, and the community.
In 2013, the Huntington opened up another theatre in the South End through its operation of the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
The redevelopment of the project site of 254-264 Huntington Ave. will include the demolition of the two remaining buildings, which used to be home to the theatre’s set design and costume shop. A $5 million project moved those productions to Everett.
The two buildings will be replaced with construction of a 32-story or 362-foot, mixed-use building with up to 426 residential units including 55 affordable units on-site.
The first two levels will have about 14,000 square feet of cultural space for use by the Huntington Theatre Company and about 114 parking spaces in an underground parking garage.
The project will also include the renovation of the existing Huntington Theatre and the replacement of the existing annex building behind it. The annex will be a five-story or 70-foot tall building with two stories below grade to house rehearsal space, production shops, dressing rooms, a green room, loading area and associated support space for the theatre.
The estimated coast of the project is $290 million. The financing of the renovation of the theatre will come from private donations with fundraising that is currently underway and on target to meet to the goal.
“The restoration and expansion of our beautiful theatre on Huntington Avenue is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, one that we are confident will have a lasting impact on the city of Boston, and it will be through the generosity of new and established donors that we will be able to raise the funds necessary to bring this project to fruition,” said David Epstein, the Huntington’s chairman of the board and chief operating officer of the real estate company, The Abbey Group.
QMG Huntington LLC will also provide the Huntington Theatre Company with 14,000 square feet of new cultural space at the base of the new apartment towers, with a 100-year lease for the price of $1.
The Huntington is responsible for outfitting the new contemporary space, which will serve as the Huntington Avenue Theatre’s new entrance and provide public amenities including increased gathering spaces and an expansive, second-floor lobby that will double as an event space and intimate performance venue for up to 150 people.
To help mitigate the impact of the new residential towers to the nearby Symphony and Harry Ellis Dickson Park on Edgerly Road, QMG Huntington LLC will donate $60,000 to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department. It will go towards maintenance, landscaping, snow removal, seasonal plantings and more.
In addition, there will be a renovation to the façade that will include restoring the terrace to mimic what was historically there.
“This is an important component to give the building dignity,” said Scott Nielson from the Levi-Neilsen Company Inc. “At the same time, we are sensitive to others and of the width of the sidewalk. We are going to recreate [the terrace], but it will be pulled back closer to the building.”
Major concerns came from the owner of 270 Huntington Ave., a condo association that houses many homeless and those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. He said the construction of the annex will block off the sunlight and air that many of his residents need, considering they spend a lot of time in their rooms.
The developers said that they have already lowered the height and, through design, will work with the abutters to create a space that is a win for everybody.
“We certainly want to continue those discussions and are open to those conversations and other strategies because it will serve us as well,” said Maso. “The only thing we know is that the building height has been lowered and we have reduced the impact by over 50 percent, and we will move forward in good faith that a design solution will work for both abutters to mitigate the impact. We take it very seriously.”