By Steven Froias
NEW BEDFORD, MA – There may be no building more poignant on the urban streetscape than a former movie theater shorn of its original purpose and left to fend for itself in a world which has relegated it to oblivion. These noble structures dot the landscape of cities across America as symbols of obsolescence – yet retain a powerful hold on the collective imagination and help form the emotional infrastructure of any given place.
The former Capitol Theater in New Bedford, Massachusetts is just such a building. Its position in the city’s history as a destination location and community incubator on the commercial corridor Acushnet Avenue is legendary.
But its role into the future has long been in doubt.
THE CEDC BUYS THE CAPITOL THEATER
The Community Economic Development Center (CEDC), a non-profit organization dedicated to enabling opportunity for all segments of society, has recently purchased the former Capitol Theater. The CEDC has also entered into a partnership agreement with Waterfront Area Historic League (WHALE), which will rehabilitate the building for adaptive reuse. Together, the two will return it to center stage in the civic life of the City of New Bedford.
The impressive effort will see the Capitol Theater repurposed into office space, affordable housing units, street level retail and a new home for the CEDC with enhanced economic development and vocational programming. When complete, the $5.7 million project will prove transformative in scope for this revitalizing north end neighborhood.
“There’s a reason theaters occupy a hallowed place in preservation history,” explains WHALE Executive Director Teri Bernert. “They were and are centrally located to have maximum impact on a city’s commercial and cultural well-being. The Capitol Theater is a perfect example of that in the past, and now into the future.”
An initial feasibility study for the project was funded with a Local Initiatives Support Corporation grant. LISC is one of the country’s largest organizations supporting projects to revitalize communities and bring greater economic opportunity to residents, according to its website, lisc.org.
When the economic resilience of the property and project was judged sound, the CEDC then secured Community Preservation Act Funding in 2019 in the amount of $350,00 to help purchase the Capitol building, which sold for $450,000. The application for CPA funding was the first in the City of New Bedford to utilize those funds for a project that includes affordable housing.
REPURPOSING HISTORY FOR THE FUTURE
WHALE’s mission is to foster historic preservation and continued use of the city’s architectural heritage to enhance community and economic vitality in New Bedford. The non-profit development corporation accomplishes this through the restoration and reuse of historic structures which provide commercial development, affordable housing to low and moderate income individuals and families, promotes arts and culture, and educates on the importance of the historic and architectural culture of New Bedford’s diverse people.
WHALE entered into the partnership with the CEDC after completing its usual feasibility assessment for any project. The conclusion was reached that not only was the project feasible, but also necessary to further promote the CEDC’s mission in the north end of the city.
The Community Economic Development Center, currently located at 1285 Acushnet Avenue, fosters economic justice in the local economy through people-centered development, with a focus on community members who have recently immigrated here. They connect youth and adults to skill-building opportunities and resources. They also help foster community networks and collaborations to promote cooperative action for social change. The CEDC will relocate to a refurbished Capitol and expand their efforts when construction is complete.
“Ensuring that everyone in New Bedford is engaged in every facet of its economic and civic life is our primary goal,” says Corinn Williams, Executive Director of the CEDC. “With this project, we can realize that mission for years to come while anchoring Acushnet Avenue in the city’s future as well as its past.”
Preliminary plans include offering a mix of programs in an opportunity center that can accommodate demand and meet the needs of the diverse North End population. Uses under consideration for this center include textile and culinary incubator spaces, arts and culture studios and workshops, and vocational training programs in Spanish. The greater Acushnet Avenue neighborhood has a large population of Central American, Latino and Hispanic residents who are critical to stabilizing urban areas.
The entire project will also include six retail storefronts and six affordable apartments. Several of the retail locations have already drawn interest; future tenants may include a Vietnamese restaurant and an attorney’s office, joining an existing bodega. When complete, the project will, in effect, return the building to its former prominent place as a commercial destination.
THE CAPITOL TAKES CENTER STAGE ON THE AVE
The Capitol Theater building at 1418-1440 Acushnet Avenue was constructed in 1920 in an early twentieth-century American commercial style. It is a two-story brick building and was originally designed as a multi-use building to include street-level storefronts, second-floor office spaces, and a single-screen, 1500-seat movie theater.
According to research compiled by WHALE, The Capitol Theater building contributed both to the growth and development of the twentieth-century entertainment industry and to the rapid late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century development of the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor, affectionately known as “The Ave” in New Bedford.
As several mills opened to the north of the old city boundaries of development, hundreds of houses were built along the intersecting streets of the thoroughfare, and hundreds of businesses opened and developed in turn along “The Ave” to provide services and entertainment to the growing population.
The Capitol Theater was constructed for Allen-Charrette, Inc., a local theater company owned and operated by theater proprietors George W. Allen, Jr. and Thomas J. Charrette. Today, the building still bears their names in concrete on the facade of the building.
Much of the block has been vacant since the theater closed in the mid-1970s, and the second floor of the commercial block has been largely vacant since the 1970s/80s. Some of the first-floor storefronts have been occupied until more recently, but four out of the six storefronts are currently vacant. A redemption center is located in one of the storefronts and uses the vacant theater as warehouse space, and a market is located in another storefront.
The commercial block section has undergone a patchwork of interior renovations, and the building has suffered overall from vacancy, lack of maintenance, and, particularly in the theater block section, considerable water infiltration. The building currently ranges from fair to very poor condition.
Still, the Capitol Theater is one of only a few surviving theater buildings in New Bedford. While over twenty theaters opened here during the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Capitol Theater building is one of only five surviving theater buildings in the city, and one of only two located in the north end. (The other is the former Strand Theater, now also under WHALE’s care and under renovation for use as a fully-functioning Cape Verdean Cultural Center.)
The Capitol Theater’s location on Acushnet Avenue is significant as you travel the street. It’s renovation will have a large visual impact on the streetscape. Yet, it is the project’s social and economic impact which will make it transformative in this neighborhood, as WHALE well knows from its impeccable planning before beginning any project.
A Capitol Theater restoration deserves a capital fund-raising effort, and 2020 will be devoted toward bringing this vision to life on “The Ave.” In addition to historic tax credits, additional CPA funding and other preservation funding, an appeal will be launched for private donations.
The CEDC is one of a handful of community development centers that was chosen by Massachusetts to receive tax credit allocations. What this means is that as a donor of $1,000 or more, you will receive a 50% state tax credit on top of the federal tax deduction. Effectively, a donation of $1,000 is reduced to an out-of-pocket $325 contribution due to this tax provision.
WHALE, too is a beneficiary of this tax credit. In partnership with the CEDC on the Capitol Theater project, a variety of fundraising measures and appeals will help each reach their goal of a restored Capitol Theater community hub for New Bedford’s north end within two years.
By Steven Froias