By Neil Schulman
Long Branch — “This is one of the nicest, most beautiful and publicly benevolent uses I have seen” said Planning Board Chair Ed Thomas as he and the board unanimously approved a plan to turn the former West End School into the West End Performing Arts Center, with theaters, cinema, a museum, and other attractions.
The proposal, by NJ Repertory Company, will keep much of the basic structure of the school, but add some features and modernize the existing structure, making it more energy and ecologically friendly. It will also move the main entrances away from the north side of the building, which is opposite houses, to avoid disturbing residents.
Gabor Barabas, Executive Producer for NJ Rep, said that he envisions the project as a way to cooperate with area businesses, and bring more arts and culture to West End. NJ Rep has already been operating successfully on Broadway for 20 years.
Barabas said that the idea for NJ Rep came when his job, which required late hours, found him frequently driving down an empty downtown late at night.
“I began to fantasize about what it would take to light up the neighborhood,” Barabas said.
Since then, NJ Rep has put on more than 100 plays, most world premieres. It has received numerous awards, including the American Theater Wing, distributed by the organization in charge of the Tony Awards.
They’ve been looking to expand, and Barabas said that West End was “the perfect place to develop a cultural renaissance.”
“West End is a remarkable neighborhood, and we’re very excited,” Barabas said.
The plans for the arts center, which would have programs for all ages, include:
• Turning the current school auditorium into a 150-seat proscenium theater.
• A 75-seat “black box” theater for smaller productions.
• A 35-seat rehearsal theater, where actors can practice and sets can be designed for future productions.
• Two 90-seat cinemas by Second Avenue.
• An art museum above the cinemas, with a skylight to allow for large sculptures, as well as striking visuals.
• Maintaining a large, 80×100 foot lawn, which would be used during summer productions.
• A large green room above the lobby.
Barabas said that some of the other rooms in the building would be used as apartments for out-of-town actors and directors to stay for a few weeks during production; as classrooms for poetry, playwright classes, and other arts-oriented programs; and as media space.
The project would generate 124 parking spaces, including some new ones on the street. Because it’s no longer a school, some of the parking restrictions in the area would be relaxed too.
Part of the plan is designed to encourage pedestrians, opening up walking paths south to the main stretch of businesses on Brighton Avenue. Organizers said they are aiming to encourage foot traffic, and the new configuration will open up the center to the stores nearby.
While the Arts Center will have a pantry, it doesn’t plan to do its own catering. Instead, it will foster a relationship with the restaurants in West End, working with them if it hosts and dinners — and encouraging theater-goers to dine and shop nearby.
As construction is taking place, NJ Rep plans to use the current building and trailers on the property as office and rehearsal space.
Architect Robert Blakeman said that much of the work would be to modernize the buildings, making them environmentally friendly while giving them a visually stunning look.
“We want people driving past to say, ‘What is this? What’s happening there?’” he said.
The existing school was “built before energy was an issue,” Blakeman said, and a layer of insulating bricks will be placed around it. The box air conditioners in the rooms will also be replaced with a more efficient system.
The board heard the entire hearing in a single evening, with traffic and landscape experts saying that the site would not cause any traffic issues, and steps were being taken to keep lighting from spilling into the residential areas.
While the Planning Board is used to hearing from residents during a project, Board member Michael Destefano noted that this was the first meeting he could recall where all the comments were positive.
One of those positive comments was from Peter English, Monmouth Beach. “This opportunity, to me, is not a golden opportunity — it is a platinum opportunity which you should not let slip from your hands.”