Plans for a new bayfront performing arts center include a 2,250-seat main hall, but details on cost estimates are still forthcoming.
Eighteen months ago, representatives for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Van Wezel Foundation announced their intention to pursue the construction of a new bayfront venue to replace the iconic facility built in 1969.
Since then, a team has been working to sharpen the vision for the new building, referred to as the Sarasota Performing Arts Center. Key details, including the design of the venue and the cost of construction, are still to be determined. Already, those involved in the planning process are optimistic about the progress they’ve made and the prospect of creating a destination both central to Sarasota’s arts scene and accessible to a broad segment of the community.
On Monday, the planning team provided an update to the City Commission. Some core details regarding the new performing arts center are unchanged from summer 2018. The plan still calls for a venue featuring a 2,250-seat main hall capable of hosting touring productions of Broadway shows, as well as a 400-seat flexible performance space. The building would also include café space, a 150-seat education theater, a lower lobby and a grand lobby outside of the main hall.
Other aspects of the proposal have been adjusted. Perhaps most significantly, the scope of the project has been downsized from two buildings into one. As a result, the size of the center has shrunk from 250,000 square feet in 2018 to 145,000 square feet.
The presentation detailed how the venue would be erected above ground level in pursuit of long-term sustainability along the waterfront. The 2018 city-adopted bayfront master plan called for the performing arts center to be raised with parking beneath the structure. Today, the planning team envisions the center raised on stilts with room for about 200 parking spaces below.
The planning team said one of the main goals of the project is to ensure the new center is designed as a public asset that meshes with the park that will surround it. Christine Dunn, an architect with the planning firm Sasaki, described the lower-level lobby as an active space facing the park that’s not only open when an event is taking place inside the center. She cited as inspiration examples of other arts facilities that offer active programming free to the public outside of the building.
“We really want a building that will stay active throughout the entire year, and from morning to night,” Dunn said.
The presentation said the new facility is being planned so construction could take place while allowing the Van Wezel to continue to operate. Dunn said the proposal placed the center in the northeast corner of the current Van Wezel parking lot, leaving about three-quarters of the parking spaces still available for use during construction.
Presenters at Monday’s meeting said the planning team hoped to complete a final report, which would include a cost estimate, in January. The Sarasota Performing Arts Center team is working to negotiate a partnership agreement with the city that would empower the Van Wezel Foundation, rather than the city, to manage the development and operation of the new facility, which would remain under city ownership.
Representatives for the Sarasota Performing Arts Center said the project team is also focusing on community outreach as it moves forward with planning. Over the next few weeks, the group intends to roll out a multifaceted strategy for engaging with the public and getting insight regarding what residents would like to see at a new facility. Van Wezel Foundation CEO Cheryl Mendelson said the process would include an economic impact study, a quantitative survey and a community initiative to gather qualitative input.
Mendelson said the project team hoped the strategy would foster engagement with a diverse sampling of Sarasota residents, helping get the insight not just of current Van Wezel patrons, but of those with whom the venue is currently failing to connect.
“We’re going to design the survey also to understand what people view as barriers — whether it’s transportation, whether it’s cost, whether it’s programming,” Mendelson said.
Mendelson said a project timeline is still variable, but that the process of selecting an architecture and design team could begin in spring 2020 if things proceed according to plan.