As is often the case with the subject of preserving the repurposing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, high-level conversations often conflate that mission with whether a new performing arts center across the parking lot from the Van Wezel is even necessary.
It happened again during Monday’s City Commission workshop, where the first topic of discussion was the composition of a committee to study the extent to which the Van Wezel can or should be renovated alongside the proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center planned for The Bay.
Almost as it began, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch shifted the discussion from repurposing the nearly 50-year-old Van Wezel to whether an upwards of a $300 million replacement of the iconic structure was financially viable and in the community’s best interest.
“I have not seen the city entertain spending this kind of money and do something this grandiose,” Ahearn-Koch said. "I'm not saying that we shouldn't dream, and we shouldn't think large and we shouldn't think about the future. I’m one-fifth of this group, and to spend the kind of money and effort and staff time that we're talking about doing, we shouldn't be just kind of sure, or partially sure, this is what we should do. We should be 1,000% positive this is the step we need to take that this is not a want, but that it is a need. I have not been convinced 100% without a doubt.”
Even as a task force appointed by the City Commission and the Sarasota Performing Arts Center Foundation is whittling down a list of potential architecture firms to design the new facility, a public debate continues regarding the future of the Van Wezel — and if a replacement is even necessary.
Supporters of the Van Wezel say the building is a significant piece of Sarasota’s history that can be renovated to meet the city’s live performance demands. Proponents of a new performing arts venue say repairing the Van Wezel, which would require waterproofing, storm surge protection measures and multiple infrastructure system replacements, can’t address its most glaring shortcomings. They include not enough seats, inadequate backstage facilities and an undersized stage.
“This conversation is about the blue-ribbon committee,” City Manager Marlon Brown told Ahearn-Koch. “If you want to seat a blue-ribbon committee, we have to talk about repurposing of the Van Wezel Hall. This is not about whether we need a new performing arts hall or not. If you want to have that conversation, then let's stop this conversation, and we can revisit the partnership agreement, the commission's vote to proceed with the new performing arts center, and we can stop all of this discussion right now.
“You as a commission agreed to a blue-ribbon committee, and you also agreed to move forward with a new performing arts center. You may not have voted for it, but the commission agreed to it.”
To abandon the SPAC in favor of the Van Wezel, Brown said, would require an 8- to 10-foot wall around the building to protect it from potential storm surge, eliminating the bayfront view. Hydrostatic pressure from the bay will continue to undermine the foundation and top shows will continue to bypass Sarasota because the building's infrastructure isn’t up to contemporary standards.
“If you're going to add more seats, they have to take the roof off, and you talk about the roof being historic,” Brown said. “If you have to replace the roof, that no longer becomes historic.”
Commissioner Eric Arroyo suggested the panel include a structural engineer, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert said another should have performing arts center expertise.
Commissioner Debbie Trice suggested a member possess historic preservation expertise. Commissioners also raised the possibility of the committee hiring a consultant to assist it.
Brown said he would schedule an agenda item, for a future commission meeting to structure a committee with the various qualifications culled from Monday’s discussion. The size of the committee and how appointments will be made remains to be determined.
“And I think it is critical that it be unbiased and rigorous because we've seen what the concerned citizens have said, and unless our recent recommendations or the committee's recommendations are rigorous and unbiased, our credibility will suffer,” Trice said. “It's important that whatever this committee comes back with be credible and accepted as valid by the community at large.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.