NEW BEDFORD — The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center got a green light for its multi-million-dollar renovation on Thursday night, as the City Council approved a 99-year lease needed to pay for the makeover.
In a vote of 9-to-2 — the same margin voted a week earlier by the council Committee on City Property, made up of the full panel — councilors agreed to approve the lease for the city-owned building housing the theater on Purchase Street, considered a pillar of city arts and cultural life.
That margin passed the supermajority threshold of eight votes needed to approve the lease, which essentially gives the Zeiterion the benefits and responsibilities of owning the building for a price of one dollar.
The long-term agreement is necessary for about a quarter of the financing of the renovation to qualify for state and federal historic tax credits. A lawyer for the Zeiterion last week told committee members that a 65-to-70-year agreement could also work, but nothing shorter than that.
Council President Linda Morad, an at-large councilor, and Maria Giesta of Ward 2 dissented.
Giesta said she supports the arts in general and the Zeiterion in particular, but she said she could not abide binding the city to such a long-term commitment. As she did at the committee meeting last week, Giesta reminded her colleagues of 99-year leases on property on Kings Highway in the North End and on the waterfront that have not worked out well for the city.
“I don’t understand with all the history of the city’s 99-year leases why we would support a 99-year lease,” she said. She said she would have agreed to the 65- or 70-year term.
She also said that in her ward, there are many businesses along Acushnet Avenue, Ashley Boulevard, Coggeshall Street and Belleville Avenue that have not received the sort of support the Zeiterion has received from the city, including $5 million in federal money under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for the renovation.
“These businesses (in Ward 2) contribute millions of dollars to the city,” she said.
After Giesta spoke, the council voted first on a motion to adopt an order authorizing the mayor to enter into a 99-year lease with the Zeiterion. That vote went 8-3, with Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste joining Morad and Giesta in dissent.
The vote on the lease itself, with one minor revision adopted last week, went 9-2.
Baptiste, who represents the ward where the Zeiterion stands, said after the meeting that he wanted the agreement to go through, but he also wanted to register his objection to the 99-year term. He said he would have been happier with 65 or 70 years.
Rosemary Gill, Zeiterion president and chief executive officer, has said that the renovation is expected to cost at least $32 million, but bids are not all in and the cost could be higher. She said the work could start by the end of the year and would take about 14 months.
Along with the historic tax credits money, Gill has said the renovation plan is being financed with philanthropic donations and city, state and federal funds.
The renovation plan for the 1,200-seat theater — home to the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theatre — includes a new facade, a new upper lobby, new small performance space, updated seats and restrooms. Gill has said that about half the renovation work is just to bring the century-old building up to code for electrical, plumbing and structural components.
To set the stage for the renovation, the building has been shut down and emptied of all sound, lighting and concessions equipment. Offices have moved temporarily to the DeMello International Center a short walk away on Union Street, Gill said.
The Zeiterion for 10 years has been using the building under a management agreement with the city rather than a lease, Gill said.
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