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Emerson to take on Paramount Theater project

The long-awaited renovation of Washington Street's Paramount Theater moves a large step closer to reality today, with Mayor Thomas M. Menino's planned announcement of a new partnership with Emerson College. The $70 million Paramount Center project would redevelop the Theater District landmark and two neighboring properties to provide two theaters, rehearsal rooms, student residences, and restaurant space.

Menino plans to join leaders of Emerson College, Millennium Partners-Boston, the American Repertory Theatre, and other local arts groups today to announce the project. Loosely projected to open in 2008, it would include the Arcade building at 543-547 Washington St., next to the Paramount, and a vacant parcel called the North Lot, behind the Arcade.

''This is my dream, now -- two out of three," Menino said yesterday, referring to the Paramount, the newly reopened Opera House, and the still shuttered Modern Theater, all on the same block. The dormant stretch near Downtown Crossing has long been a focus of Menino's revitalization efforts: In 1995, he suceeded in having the three theaters placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of most endangered places, and the city has searched for years for partners to bring the area back to life. ''We're slowly realizing our goals," Menino said.

Emerson's trustees voted Monday to take on the project and to earmark $70 million for it, bringing the college's investment in Theater District properties to more than $350 million, according to board chairman Ted Benard Cutler. Millennium Partners acquired the Paramount as part of its deal with the city to develop nearby Millennium Place, and it has already spent $1.6 million on repairs.

Emerson will renovate the properties and manage the performing arts center when it is complete. It will lease the Paramount and the North Lot for a nominal amount, as stipulated in the area's zoning. The city Friday signed a 99-year lease with Arcade owner Dan Levin, and Emerson will assume that lease at some point.

Today's announcement comes nearly three years after Menino symbolically relit the Paramount's signature 60-foot marquee, a gesture highlighting the city's intention to develop a 400- to 500-seat performing arts center that could serve as a second stage for the ART. At that time, ART executive director Robert J. Orchard secured the services of Boston architect Graham Gund, who provided two free preliminary designs, and the ART gave pro bono advice to the city.

But the ART was also pursuing other possible second stages, which it needed because it shares its main stage with Harvard students. It eventually developed the Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge. So the ART declined to ''take the lead" on the Paramount, said Harry Collings, executive director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the Midtown Cultural District.

''Emerson has committed real money . . . and taken over the leadership role the ART was going to fill in redeveloping the Paramount," Collings said.

''We know the Paramount needs a strong and dedicated anchor tenant," Orchard said, ''and I can't imagine a better player than Emerson, because of its existing investment in the neighborhood, its distinguished program in the arts, and its hospitality to outside performing groups."

Emerson is working with Elkus/Manfredi Architects on preliminary designs. Plans are sketchy but will probably include a theater seating about 450 and a smaller, 75- to 125-seat black-box theater. One of Gund's designs had featured a 700-seat space, and BRA spokesman Susan Elsbree said yesterday that the final size will depend on the needs of the nonprofit arts groups that the city wants to include.

''One of the commitments Emerson has given us is that the theaters will be available to nonprofit arts groups in the city," Menino said.

A consortium of these groups, put together in 2002, included the ART, the Boston Conservatory, World Music, the Celebrity Series, the Handel & Haydn Society, and Shakespeare & Company. Elsbree said the city has ''reached out" to these groups in the past few days. Orchard said the ART may still want to stage one production a year at the Paramount.

''We really want to work with the not-for-profits that are able to do it," Cutler said.

The project still faces substantial challenges. Built in 1932 as an Art Moderne movie house, the Paramount has a shallow stage -- just 11 feet deep -- and a nearly flat auditorium floor that creates some bad sightlines. Most of the theater's original details have not survived its long, slow spiral, which bottomed out in the building's last incarnation as a porn theater before closing in 1976.

''It took a lot to make this happen, but it's a beautiful thing for the city and for Emerson College," Cutler said. ''This will change the face of that section of Boston."

Elsbree said the agreement started to come together about eight months ago. The city had been conferring with nonprofit arts groups on their needs for more space, and it had been in separate discussions with Emerson about the college's ongoing efforts to shift from the Back Bay to the Theater District. These have included its development of the Cutler Majestic Theatre and plans for student housing and other projects.

''The two tracks sort of came together," Elsbree said. ''The fun thing is that we get to put the pieces together."

As for whether the Paramount plan will affect the Modern, ''it doesn't affect it today," Elsbree said. ''In the next few weeks, I think we'll start to see what may or may not happen there. That's the next important piece of the puzzle."


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