Washington Square Developer Expects Years of Fundraising, Opening in 2025

The Merrimack River behind violinist at Washington Square cultural center proposed. (Courtesy rendering.)

The proposed $86.7 million cultural center for Washington Square, unveiled Friday, requires substantial fundraising to be realized and doesn’t expect a grand opening for five years.

Although the recently formed Weitzman Initiative for the Arts and Industry bid just $1 for the 12 Washington Square property, documents show two years of fundraising is required. Designer shoe icon Stuart Weitzman has pledged to donate, appear at events and lend his list of contacts to get the job done. The nonprofit organization hopes to formally purchase the property from the city next June, but doesn’t expect to begin building until 2022 and host a formal grand opening in 2025.

The eight-story project will house a shoe museum; café; two-story, 6,000-square-foot theater; museum store; restaurant; and other elements adjacent to the post office in Washington Square. Weitzman is expected to donate his own historic footwear collection. When it was placed on display in New York in 2018, the collection featured a pair of shoes outlined in diamonds worth a million dollars.

Besides the fundraising, the existing bus station, rented by the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, will have to be relocated and provisions made for 50 parking spaces that will be lost during construction. Regarding the bus terminal, a consultant writes, “there are ongoing discussions to relocate this use to a more suitable location, such as by the commuter rail station.”

Outside consultant, Cambridge-based ConsultEcon, expects the center will annually attract 53,000 visitors, cost $2.7 million to operate and generate $1.2 million each year in revenue. To cover the $1.5 million shortfall, it will need either additional annual contributions, a larger initial endowment, greater sales or reduced operating expenses.

Five days before bids were due, Weitzman Initiative President Francis J. Bevilacqua III noted in a letter to Mayor James J. Fiorentini, “This project was spawned by a chance meeting between Stuart Weitzman and Michael Drossos in your office. During their subsequent conversation and in the weeks that followed, Stuart and Michael envisioned a cultural center that would venerate Haverhill’s place in manufacturing history, be the home to Stuart’s personal shoe collection and act as a vibrant community center where students and practitioners design and invent the footwear of tomorrow.”

The project was endorsed by Historic New England whose president, Carl R. Nold, said the new museum could “display portions of our large shoe collection.” While no specific agreement exists with Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Provost Kymberly Pinder committed “best efforts” to develop “ties of friendship and cooperation,” “mutual collaboration” and work toward “more formal, complex and binding agreements.”

Weitzman is a world-renowned shoe-maker whose family owned a Haverhill shoe shop.

The city’s recent invitation for proposals for “cultural or innovative use” for the property—reported first by WHAV Dec. 11, appears to have been tailored to this proposal. Even city councilors were kept in the dark even though the city charter requires the Council to first declare the land as “surplus” before it can be sold.

Although bids were to have been opened publicly Tuesday, WHAV’s request for the bidders’ names was held for Friday’s announcement. As it turns out, the Weitzman Institute was the only bidder.

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