THE HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE, which sits at 659 Washington Street on the edge of the Combat Zone, is barely visible anymore. Defunct and dilapidated, the theater, with its drab brick façade, shuttered storefronts, and boarded windows, blends imperceptibly into the last stretch of blight on lower Washington. You’d never know that it was designed by leading theater architect Clarence Blackall — of Colonial, Wilbur, and Wang fame — and has acoustics rivaling those of Jordan and Symphony Halls. Nor would you know that soon after it was built, in 1908, it helped define the emerging culture of vaudeville and burlesque in Boston, and thus the rest of the country, and that later, in the ’20s, it brought the Harlem Renaissance to the Hub.
But while its glory days have long since passed, the Gaiety is once again commanding attention — this time because a major fight is under way over a development plan that would raze the six-story historic theater to make way for an upscale high-rise apartment building. Yet this is no ordinary local-community-versus-big-developer battle. The controversy has engendered an unlikely alliance among its opponents. Even more interesting, however, are the lengths to which Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration has been willing to go to realize the project — including flagrantly breaking several of the city’s zoning laws. Menino’s methods and motives tell us a lot about how the mayor does business and views the city’s future — especially in contrast with mixed-use plans proposed for the area by local residents.
To the discerning eye, Menino’s vision for the Midtown Cultural District, where the Gaiety stands, is already plain. Across the street from the old theater, a 440-unit luxury residential tower is rising above the Washington Street skyline on the site of a former parking lot. Several blocks away, the two glitzy glass residential buildings known as the Ritz-Carlton Towers — a $500 million development whose 306 condos are on the market for up to $4 million each — already dwarf the city’s landscape. Slightly further out, near the Park Plaza, yet another high-end apartment building promises to provide 255 units and is just months from completion. Meanwhile, even more residential-and-retail towers are set to spring up near South Station, over the Massachusetts Turnpike. All this development, as well as the larger area in which it takes place, is surrounded by the South End, the Back Bay, and Beacon Hill. And what’s the common denominator? Money. Businesses that make a lot of it and people who do the same are locating themselves in this downtown district. Mayor Menino most likely suspects that these well-heeled people don’t want to live cheek by jowl with what’s left of the Combat Zone’s sex businesses, and that’s just fine with him: the mayor has long dreamed of wiping out the last remnants of the adult-entertainment district once and for all.
The property owner who can help him do it is Alan Lewis, a philanthropist and businessman best known for running Gold Circle, one of the most successful travel companies nationwide. Over the past two decades, Lewis has quietly delved into Boston real-estate investment and development, acquiring a significant chunk of the downtown area near Washington and LaGrange Streets, still regarded as the Combat Zone. Lewis’s investment company, Kensington Investment, owns the Gaiety Theatre. In its place, the firm has proposed constructing a $120 million, 346-unit luxury-apartment building called "Residences at Kensington Place," complete with retail storefronts and restaurants. The contemporary glass-and-steel tower would rise 290 feet — nearly double the area’s 155-foot limit. As a nod to the Gaiety’s cultural legacy, Kensington has promised to incorporate a kind of Disney World "interpretive exhibit" in the tower’s lobby, featuring historic photographs, theater memorabilia, and salvaged architectural elements.
Arrayed against Kensington’s plans for the Gaiety Theatre parcel are members of the performing-arts, preservation, and African-American communities; residents of neighboring Chinatown; and several city councilors. Some oppose Kensington Place because they fear it will fuel further gentrification of Chinatown, turning the nearby working-class neighborhood into another Copley Place. Others decry the proposed demolition of the turn-of-the-century Gaiety Theatre, which has remained vacant for almost two decades. Still others take issue with what they facetiously describe as "a fait accompli," a project that administration officials want badly enough to violate existing zoning provisions, engage in questionable use of eminent domain, and, in the process, outrage neighborhood and arts advocates — resulting in two lawsuits aimed at stopping the project.
Both the Menino administration and Kensington Investment are keeping silent about the Gaiety Theatre’s fate. Menino spokesperson Seth Gitell declined to make the mayor available for an interview because Kensington Place "is the subject of pending litigation and accordingly Mayor Menino cannot comment." The Phoenix also requested interviews with city officials who have worked closely with the project since its inception — Mark Maloney, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and Susan Hartnett, the mayor’s cultural-affairs commissioner and the BRA’s former economic-development director. Both Maloney and Hartnett refused to comment (through their respective department spokespeople) "because of pending litigation." Meanwhile, attempts by the Phoenix to reach Lewis and Ralph Cole, the president of Kensington Investment, were unsuccessful; the company’s attorney, Matthew Kiefer, told the Phoenix in an e-mail that Kensington representatives "can’t comment on matters which are the subject of pending litigation."
But as the two lawsuits make their way through court and the Kensington project remains on hold, the battle over the Gaiety Theatre continues to rage. At stake is not only the preservation of a culturally historic building, but something larger as well. Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, who, along with his colleagues Felix Arroyo and Maura Hennigan, signed on to one of the cases challenging Kensington Place, explains that at the root of this controversial plan "is a crucial public-policy issue." Are city officials going to throw aside their zoning laws and planning regulations to let a developer build a residential tower for the wealthy? "Is the business community going to live by a different standard and not follow the law?" Turner asks. "Are city officials going to let developers get away with it?"page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 6
Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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