City Commission asks staff to schedule workshop on the future of the Van Wezel as bayfront planning continues

Commissioner Ahearn-Koch also points to more community interest in repurposing the former G.WIZ structure than the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization has heard

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is owned by the city. File photo

As planning proceeds toward the creation of a draft master plan for transforming Sarasota’s bayfront, the City Commission this week asked city staff to schedule a workshop on the future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie made the request after A.G. Lafley, chair of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization (SBPO), told the board members that his organization needs to know whether the city plans to “move ahead with a new performing arts facility for the community.”

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown told the commissioners on May 21 that he would work with the staff of the Van Wezel to set a time for the commissioners to talk with representatives of the performing arts hall, which the city owns.

Lafley based his request on the fact that — as he noted during a May 21 update to the board — the vast majority of the public has made the desire clear that the Van Wezel should be part of the The Bay project.

The Sarasota Orchestra also is contemplating a new venue as part of the vision for The Bay, Lafley added. “Once these decisions are made, then we can help turn our attention to repurposing or using [part or all of the Van Wezel].”

Barwin noted that the Sarasota Orchestra’s leaders are “looking for a superior facility with world-class acoustics.”

“There’s no way that this board can make a decision like that without at least having some numbers,” Freeland Eddie told Lafley.

In an update provided to the community this week, the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization offers these details about responses it has received regarding the Van Wezel. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“Totally agree,” Lafley responded, adding that he understands the board members of the Van Wezel Foundation are working on an estimate for a new facility, as are leaders of the Sarasota Orchestra. “I think the one integrated design option Sasaki has looked seriously at is repurposing the shell [of the Van Wezel] as an outdoor performance venue,” Lafley said.

Sasaki is the Watertown, Mass.-based design firm the SBPO hired last year to create the master plan for 53 acres of the city’s bayfront, most of which is city-owned land.

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that, several years ago, the Van Wezel Foundation hired a nationally recognized consulting firm that focuses on performing arts facilities — AMS Planning & Research. After concluding its research, he continued, AMS explained that when the Van Wezel “was built 40-some years ago, it was only the second performing arts hall being built in Florida.” Now, Barwin said, the Van Wezel competes with newer and bigger facilities with more attractive features, making it “a bit obsolete.” For example, it has 1,700 seats, and Mary Benzel, executive director of the Van Wezel, has told him that 2,200 would be optimal for securing more touring Broadway productions.

Two primary concerns with the Van Wezel, Barwin pointed out, are its vulnerability to sea level rise and storm threats. When Hurricane Irma was approaching the western coast of the state in September 2017, Barwin said, 5 to 8 feet of storm surge was predicted = on the city’s bayfront. “We were looking at the very real possibility that the Van Wezel lower areas of public accessibility could have 3, 4, 5 feet of water.”

For that reason, he added, the SBPO and Sasaki “have been looking toward how to accommodate a larger performing arts hall on [the bayfront]” that would be elevated. That way, it would be expected to remain usable over the next 50 years.

“I don’t think they were asked about repurposing the building,” Freeland Eddie replied, referring to the AMS study. The commissioners need to discuss the future of the Van Wezel, she added, “because we are responsible for repurposing that building and making sure it stands up to the environment.”

“When do you need to know our feelings about the Van Wezel?” Mayor Liz Alpert asked.

(From left) A.G. Lafley and Bill Waddill, along with Susannah Ross and Gina Ford of Sasaki, address the City Commission on May 21. News Leader photo

“Probably the most important thing to know,” Lafley replied, is whether the city will be planning on construction of a new venue and the resulting timeline. The SBPO and Sasaki are working on phases for the bayfront master plan, he pointed out. Therefore, they can plan around whatever decision city leaders make.

Barwin noted that the Van Wezel Foundation would be retaining an architect to design a new facility. The result would enable development of cost estimates, he added. “The first decision has to be where on site” the new facility would be constructed and then how parking would be handled, Barwin said. “We can begin that process very soon.”

Freeland Eddie said she would like to see a workshop scheduled as soon as possible.

The future of the G.WIZ structure and lawn bowling

Then Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked Lafley and Bill Waddill, the SBPO’s managing director, about the former home of the G.WIZ science museum on the bayfront, along with the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club, which has been using space on the bayfront for decades for routine play and major events.

The former G.WIZ science museum stood at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts in Sarasota. File photo

“We have not had a … formal request from anyone, including the city,” Lafley began, to incorporate the G.WIZ building into the master plan. “We looked hard at the building,” he continued, in the context of best uses. One primary concern, he said, is that it is very close to the mangrove habitat on the bayfront, and a clear majority of members of the public who have participated in the SBPO’s planning process — including filling out surveys — want to see that habitat enhanced.

Pointing out that he is “a geek for numbers,” he told Ahearn-Koch that only 31 of the 2,300 surveys people filled out in April regarding the master plan mentioned the G.WIZ. That is a bit more than 1%, he said. Three of those who noted it on the surveys “were comfortable” with removing the building, he continued, while half suggested the potential repurposing of it. “It is prime real estate along Boulevard of the Arts,” he noted.

The public has been focused on open space and green space as major facets of the bayfront design, Lafley pointed out. Additionally, the G.WIZ structure is only about a foot above the flood plain, he said. “It’s sitting in a rather precarious situation. … Everything that we recommend building will be at 18-25 [foot] elevation.”

Nonetheless, he continued, the SBPO and Sasaki would be willing to entertain a request for use of the structure, if that was what the City Commission desired.

When Ahearn-Koch asked whether any consideration had been given to moving the G.WIZ building, Lafley told her that no such conversation has been conducted.

The former playground and picnic area of G.WIZ were adjacent to the parking lot. File photo

She has heard from many people who would like to see the structure repurposed, she said, offering to provide him the emails she has received. The structure is of value to the community from architectural, cultural and historic standpoints, she added. Saving it, she noted, has been overshadowed “by the overwhelming desire to save the Van Wezel.”

Waddill told her he would be happy to read the emails. “More data, the better.”

Waddill added that he had spoken at length with community architects about the building, and only one of them has expressed an interest in retaining it.

As for the future of lawn bowling: Waddill explained that he has had “a number of meetings” with the president and vice president of the club. They city’s 2003 parks master plan, he continued, called for the club to relocate to Payne Park. The club’s leadership is concerned about becoming financially sustainable, he added, so they are open to moving elsewhere.

Nonetheless, he said, he has talked with them about the possibility of keeping one area open on the bayfront where games could be played as a means of honoring the club’s more than 80 years of competition on the site.