Uphams Corner citizen workshops weigh future of the iconic Strand

The city-sponsored Uphams Corner planning process continued last week with a workshop focused on the Strand Theatre, a neighborhood icon and anchor for almost a century. City officials, artists, and residents said they hope to see a more flexible use of the Strand’s space while preserving it as a community resource.

Dozens of attendees sat on the theater’s main stage on Thursday for a briefing on the landmark’s history and a discussion about the venue’s future. In small groups, they bemoaned the Strand’s lack of resources, considered the need for diverse spaces within the theater for rehearsals, performance, co-working, community gatherings, or experimenting with new technology.

The fear, one group wrote, is that “the unique characteristics of the building, and the community around it, are not fully appreciated.” They wondered: What role will the community have in deciding its best use? But there was also a sense of optimism about what’s ahead. “This moment comes and goes again, but I feel something different this time,” they wrote.

The Uphams Corner Implementation Plan is working to guide new investment across the village, incorporating efforts like Imagine Boston 2030 and the Uphams Corner Station Area Plan of the Fairmount Indigo Planning Initiative. Officials with the city’s planning agency hope to put out a Request for Proposals on strategic city-controlled parcels in the area in spring of 2018, capping about eight months of public discussion.

Harry Smith, director of sustainable economic development with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, said, “The process is building on efforts that came before and it’s open ended enough to lay the groundwork for what will come next, which is a release of RFPs… to start developing properties based on the vision and goals of the neighborhood.”

Anchor tenants, like the Strand Theatre and the forthcoming $18 million library next door, will join other parcels with mixtures of commercial space, affordable housing, and cultural resources to make up the heart of a new “Uphams Corner arts and innovation district.”

Klare Shaw, national director of programs at Liberty Mutual Foundation, was part of the 2004 mayoral task force on the future of the Strand. At the meeting, she offered a look back at the venerable institution from its opening in 1918 as a vaudeville house.

From the1930s until the late 1960s, the Strand was a movie house, but the advent of television in the early 1950s introduced a steady decline in customers that culminated in the shuttering of the building in 1969. It fell into disrepair until 1979, when the city leased the building for 25 years at $1 a year to the M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts, which gave the theatre new life with teen programming and cultural performance partnerships.

In 2004, the late Mayor Thomas Menino formed a task force to lay out a new vision for the Strand. A request for proposals issued as a result of the task force’s work was not successful in drawing in potential buyers or partners and the theatre continued to be operated by city government.

“I don’t need to stress to any of you here the arts connection to the economic development and vitality of the neighborhood,” Shaw said during her remarks.

A Reporter investigation in 2010 detailed the extent of the Strand’s decline despite the millions that had been poured into renovations and new initiatives. There has been activity in the arts there since then. The Fiddlehead Theatre Company called the Strand home from 2013 to 2015 and the José Mateo Ballet Theatre has been performing The Nutcracker there for several years, and will do so again this month (Dec. 15-24).

Julie Burros, the city’s chief of arts and culture, said an arts planning process about a year and a half ago found a “deep and widespread need for affordable cultural spaces of all sorts and showed an acute shortage of performing arts spaces.”

The Strand has 1,400 seats, Burros said, which does not align with the need for more mid-sized performance space laid out in the cultural survey.

Because of the theater’s size, it is rented pretty much throughout the year, because Strand bookings essentially shut down the entire building.

In 2016, there were 54 bookings of the theatre (“almost completely fully booked,” Burros said), but the proportion of those bookings when the public can some see a performance or other presentation is “a much smaller number.”

For instance, Burros said, an arts group may book the entire Strand for a week, taking the theater out of commission and using most of the time for set construction and rehearsal. The public would only be in the theater for one or two performances at the conclusion.

If there was more flexibility in the Strand’s interior structure, such as smaller performance spaces or work areas, the theater as a whole could be used more efficiently, Burros said. Multiple spaces would accommodate simultaneous uses, including more than one stage area.

Input from these planning meetings will be incorporated into the final RFP for Uphams Corner, said John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development.

“Let me say this: We don’t think the city should be running the Strand,” he said. “We’re looking at how to articulate to the next operator of The Strand what the goal is, and also thinking about what should be the new physical reality of The Strand” in terms of flexible spaces.

Barros said he expects the planning process to be specific enough to attract private partners or interested non-profits with a precise sense of the building’s desired purpose.

“We’ve had all types of interest,” he said, “but we know interest alone is not enough. You can imagine, though, given the breadth and complexity of the properties, that you could see collaborations and partnerships. We have some pretty strong cultural institutions in the city, pretty strong development teams in the city, and we’re hoping that we could do a lot with this process to be very clear and do it in a way that’s really exciting, so that we get a lot of responses back and this community can pick someone that fits.”

Boston Planning and Development Agency employees are sorting through the feedback from the small groups, as a performance by the storytelling collective The Red Stage offered a more thematic summary of the evening’s activity but not a point-by-point review of the session’s work.

A table facilitator said his group ended its workshop with these questions: “How do you make this space a regional attraction, a local attraction, not just for Dorchester but for the city and state? And is it happening for us, through us, or to us?”