Advocates for preserving the Van Wezel pursuing petition drive and pointing to engineering study showing how venue could be floodproofed offers wealth of details along with links to reports on facility

(Editor’s note: This article was modified early in the morning of Dec. 9 to correct the estimate for adding new seats to the Van Wezel and to correct a mistake regarding the size of the Fort Myers facility.)

Since the majority of the Sarasota city commissioners approved a partnership agreement earlier this year to facilitate construction of a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC), a number of community residents have grown more fretful about the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

A 2021 engineering study undertaken of the Van Wezel — known by its devotes as the “Purple Cow” or the “Purple People Seater” — shows that the building is not as close to its proverbial death knell as SPAC supporters have contended. That information, alongside efforts to remove the Van Wezel from any role in the plans for the 53-acre Bay Park in downtown Sarasota, have spurred the Van Wezel’s fans to create a website and a petition drive to try to ensure that a SPAC would not not erase the Van Wezel from Sarasota’s history.

Additionally, they have been buoyed by the support for the Van Wezel that new Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith has expressed. As an architect with decades of experience, Smith has said that he believes the building can be flood-proofed and, therefore, can continue to serve arts patrons.

Keep the Van emphasizes at the top of its homepage, “WE DO NOT NEED A NEW SPAC,” followed by the statement, “The Van Wezel IS Sarasota’s Performing Arts Center.”

As of Dec. 5, 1,500 people had signed the petition, Kelly Franklin, organizer of the Keep the Van Wezel initiative, noted in a Facebook post.

Much information is provided on the website, with even more details available through links. Among them is the fact that the Sarasota Performing Arts Center has been estimated to cost at least $300 million.

When Hagen Brody still was a Sarasota city commissioner, he cited the potential of an even higher figure, based on the expense of such facilities in other communities. Nonetheless, he was a staunch advocate for the SPAC.

Figures provided in a 2021 study of the Van Wezel’s condition, undertaken by Karins Engineering of Sarasota for the City of Sarasota, are a fraction of that, points out. An estimate of the floodproofing was $1,877,000. The report did stress that that did not include “the cost of demolition and reconstruction of equipment and finishes within the lower levels that would occur with removing existing slabs on grade and adding framed slabs …”

Yet, Karins also worked with another firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting of Tampa, to develop estimates for various upgrades to the Van Wezel, the report shows. The resulting figures — including a $4-million projection for adding new seats — range from $44 million to $49 million.

Factors in favor of the Van Wezel

The Keep the Van Wezel website points out a number of other factors related to the venue in advocating for its continued use. For example, the Van Wezel has been recognized six times as the No. 1 performing arts hall in North America. “It is listed as a Top Stop by trade magazine Venues Now,” the website adds, linking to a news release on the Van Wezel’s website.

Released in December 2020, that news release explained that the Van Wezel had “just been named the Top Stop for venues worldwide with 2,000 or less capacity by Venues Now for 2020.”

Farther down, the homepage notes, “More seats will not mean bigger acts.”

That section of the site says, “The proposed Sarasota Performing Arts Center is based on the misconception that we need added seating capacity to compete with Tampa (which has had the largest performing arts center in the Southeast for the last 35 years).”

Then the website explains that a draft analysis that the Van Wezel Foundation commissioned from the firm AMS Planning & Research Corp. of Fairfield, Conn., released in October 2015, found — as the website puts it — that “the touring industry works on regional blackouts, and we can’t solve the geographic market constraint of proximity to a metropolis by adding more seats.”

The AMS report says, “Due to the size of its market, venue capacity, and contractual blackout clauses, the Straz Center [in Tampa] is often able to block [the Van Wezel] from obtaining certain artists or touring productions for its season.”

That report notes that the Straz “is the largest performing arts center in the Southeastern United States,” with 300,000 square feet and five separate theaters, “each with its own lobby and dressing rooms …”

First-run touring Broadway shows rank highest in demand of Van Wezel patrons, as expressed in surveys, the Keep the Van Wezel website notes. Yet, the website adds, the Straz will continue to keep Sarasota from gaining first access to certain shows, no matter how many seats a new Sarasota performing arts hall has.

The Straz’s primary theater, Carol Morsani Hall, has 2,610 seats, the AMS report says. The Van Wezel has 1,741 in its Roskamp Auditorium, the report adds.

The 2022 Broadway on Tour schedule — shown on — demonstrates that Fort Myers, which also has a performing arts venue with fewer than 2,000 seats, can book some shows that Sarasota cannot, but that is only because Fort Myers is outside Tampa’s 90-mile blackout radius.

Further, an analysis of attendance at Van Wezel performances since 2014, undertaken for the Keep the Van Wezel advocates, points out that the average occupancy ranged from 72% this year to as high as 82% in 2016 and 2019.

The document does note that the analysis excluded 14 shows because they had attendance below 15%, but the assumption was that that most likely was a factor of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the website debunks a misconception about the Van Wezel — that it is a “fire trap.”

Mary Bensel, the Van Wezel’s executive director, has pointed to numerous studies of theater seating conducted for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the website notes. Those studies have found that “Continental seating is the safest,” the website says. That references a design with no center aisle.

Moreover, the website points out, “Continental seating offers the best unobstructed stage views for everyone, which is why storied theaters,” such as Sydney’s Opera House and Clearwater’s 2,190-seat Ruth Eckerd Hall — also use that design.

Another section of the Keep the Van Wezel website points out, “Thespian Helen Hayes described the Van Wezel as ‘an actor’s ideal theater.’ ” The late Hayes was an award-winning actress known for her work on Broadway and in films.

That detail came from a 2021 interview with Bensel, the Van Wezel’s executive director, that appeared in Sarasota Scene Magazine. Bensel said Hayes’ remark is true, “because of the way the seating is — the actors can really feel the audience. When you stand up on that stage you can see almost to the back of the theater. I think it was John Legend who said it was like performing in someone’s living room.”

Details of the engineering study

In an Oct. 27 email to the Sarasota City Commission, as well as city staff members and leaders of The Bay Park Conservancy — the nonprofit that manages the park in downtown Sarasota and helps raise private funding for it — City Manager Marlon Brown wrote, “In 2021 I had a conceptual engineering analysis conducted on the existing Van Wezel facility. … At the time, this study strictly looked at the possibility of adding seats and upgrades to make the Hall more competitive for shows and what it would take to make the Hall flood proof regardless of the seating capacity. This study did not look at other items such as education arts expansion or making the Hall more state of the art or other needed amenities.”

“Further, if you recall,” he wrote, “in our Climate Adaptation Plan approved by the City Commission, the Van Wezel was cited as our most vulnerable facility to sea level rise and storm surge. You may also recall at our discussions [earlier this year] on the property insurance, the Van Wezel alone stood at just under 1/3 of our overall property insurance premium at over $334,000 this year. This is an increase from the previous year of just over $302,000. I foresee with [Hurricane Ian] that next year’s rate may increase.”

Then Brown explained that he would “direct staff to conduct a more in depth 3rd party engineering study with architects involved, analyzing the Hall without the addition of seats and just keeping the Hall as is for another 50 years (no modernization but just as is in the interior for the continued nostalgia). I will direct staff to look at everything including FEMA exemptions if the Hall was to be deemed historic to avoid triggering the 50% cost improvement rule.”

Brown was referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rule that if improvements or repairs to a structure in a flood zone will cost more than 50% of the value of that structure, then the building must be elevated, to protect it from flood surge.

Referring to details of the 2021 engineering study, Brown concluded his email thus: “I would venture to say that the results to do the protection measures would change the appearance, functionality/operation effectiveness and view of the Hall as people see it today but I am not an architect or an engineer.”

The summary of the Karins Engineering report said of the Van Wezel, “The existing building does not currently show evidence of structural members needing repairs. Continued maintenance, especially addressing water intrusion issues, will allow [it] to remain stable into the future.”

Moreover, the report noted, “Modifications and renovations to the building could fall under the FEMA 50% rule based on the value of the work and would fall under the Florida Existing Building Code level 3 alteration requirements.”

The report added that the FEMA 50% Rule does allow for the exemption of historic structures “to some degree,” as does the existing Florida Building Code. Yet, the report continued, “No official, historic, status currently exists for this building per our knowledge.”

Nonetheless, the report pointed out, “The existing building does not conform to current structural codes specifically in its siting in a ‘coastal’ flood zone. Work exceeding 50% of the current value would require floodproofing to conform to the current FEMA regulations. Floodproofing would require extensive alterations to the building in addition to whatever other work is anticipated. The estimate of probable cost of the floodproofing is $1,877,000.00 which does not include replacement of equipment and finishes within the lower floor levels or re landscaping.”

In an email provided to provided to City Manager Brown on Oct. 27 — a copy of which the News Leader obtained — then-County Commission candidate Mark Smith pointed out, “When a building is floodproofed in accordance with FEMA Technical Bulletin 3-93 Non-Residential Floodproofing — Requirements and Certification, the FEMA 50% Rule does not apply as the building would be in compliance with FEMA regulations. … The floodproofing needs to extend up the exterior walls of the building to 1 foot above the Base Flood Elevation.”

Smith continued, “Floodproofing the Van Wezel building would entail an evaluation of the structure to determine if the existing walls can resist/counter the hydrostatic pressures of flood waters at a height of the FEMA Base Flood Elevation [of 13 feet]. I’m not sure what the first floor elevation of the Van Wezel is, but if for example it were at elevation 6’ the building would need to be floodproofed to 7’ plus 1’ above the first floor.”

He then provided other technical information related to the process.

Further, Smith noted, the “storefront windows and doors would need to be replaced” with windows and doors rated to withstand floods. He learned from floodproofing window and door manufacturer Savannah Flood Protection, he added, that the storefront windows on the ground floor of the Westin Hotel at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue are flood-proofed.

In a Nov. 17 podcast of the WSLR radio program The Detail, Smith pointed out to host Cathy Antunes that the Van Wezel is one of the few historic structures remaining in the city of Sarasota. He added that it “has good bones.” Its restrooms could be updated and other “cosmetic touches” could be pursued, he said, instead of replacing it with a new facility.

A bit of history

Along with its figures and links to reports, also provides history about the performing arts hall.

The facility, which opened on Jan. 5, 1970, was designed by William “Wes” Peters, who “was Frank Lloyd Wright’s chief protégé.” Peters also “is credited with much of the structural design for Wright’s UNESCO World Heritage masterpiece, Fallingwater,” along with the Guggenheim Museum, the Marin Civic Center, and the Johnson Wax Museum, the Keep the Van Wezel website notes.

Architect Anthony Puttnam, who oversaw the Van Wezel’s renovation in 2000, pointed out that many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s basic architectural philosophies are clearly evident” in the Van Wezel: “It was designed based on the relationship to nature and with the site; the roof was based on a seashell, opening the building to views of Sarasota Bay, the dramatic interior spaces, and use of humble materials to achieve an unexpected richness. They all add up to a ‘celebration of circumstance,’ as Frank Lloyd Wright said of other designs.”

The seashell theme was chosen by Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, the Keep the Van Wezel website adds. She found the shell in the Sea of Japan, the website points out. It is on display in the Van Wezel’s lobby.