Concepts for slightly smaller, elevated Sarasota performing arts center unveiled to City Commission, though cost estimate not expected until early 2020

Facility envisioned with ‘front porch’ facing the Gulf of Mexico, akin to Perez Art Museum in Miami

This image shows the concept for the new Sarasota performing arts center. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Although a cost estimate for the facility is not expected until January 2020, facets of a new City of Sarasota performing arts center will be modeled on several structures across the United States, the project team members indicated to the City Commission on Dec. 2.

The replacement for the Van Wezel most likely will be elevated on stilts with an open, approximately 200-space parking area underneath it, Christine Dunn, an architect with the Sasaki design team of Massachusetts, explained to the commissioners.

Over the past couple of years, Sasaki has been working with nonprofit planners on the concepts for The Bay, a public park with cultural and arts amenities on the city’s 53 waterfront acres in downtown Sarasota.

The new, elevated performing arts center would reflect the design of the Perez Art Museumin Miami, which opened a couple of years ago, Dunn pointed out.

That museum, she continued, has “big, generous public-facing” front porch on Biscayne Bay. The structure is only 75 feet from the ocean, she added. “It’s in a very vulnerable spot.”

One factor in designing a new performing arts center for Sarasota has been the need to adapt to climate change, including rising sea level, the project team has emphasized.

This is the Perez Art Museum in Miami. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
These are alternate views of the ‘front porch’ feature of the museum. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Additionally, the Perez Art Museum “has a beautiful shade structure that covers the front porch … so that the cooling loads remain low,” Dunn noted.

The plan is for the new Sarasota performing arts center to be built in the northeast corner of the existing Van Wezel parking lot, she continued. “It will allow Van Wezel Hall to remain in operation during construction.”

The replacement for the Van Wezel will be a key feature of The Bay. City staff and the City Commission have been partnering with a nonprofit called the Bay Park Conservancy, which will manage the new amenities. Part of the Conservancy’s mission is raising funds to help pay for The Bay. (See the related story in this issue.)

About three-quarters of the Van Wezel parking area would remain available as the new facility is underway, Dunn continued on Dec. 2.

Graphics show the proposed location of the new performing arts center relative to the Van Wezel. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Steven Wolff, a principal with AMS Planning and Research in Southport, Conn., added that the new structure in Sarasota would have about 145,000 net square feet of space. Its primary theater, he continued, would hold about 2,250 seats and have center aisles “with good circulation.”

A slide shown to the commission says the theater would encompass 24,750 square feet.

The backstage area would be able to accommodate touring Broadway shows, he pointed out.

Further, the facility would contain “a large flexible space” — 8,050 square feet — for 400 people that could be used for the arts, banquets and a variety of other events, he said.

Another 10,000 square feet of space would be dedicated to educational efforts of the Van Wezel staff, as well as performances and community functions, Wolff continued.

The new performing arts center would be about 10% to 12% smaller than the Van Wezel, Wolff noted.

“We really want a building that will stay active throughout the entire year, from morning to night,” Dunn told the commissioners.

This graphic shows the proposed second level of the new facility. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The major lobby space, she continued, would face west and northwest, “with those prominent views of the water.” It would be reached by elevators and escalators, she noted.

“The drop-off area [for patrons] will be off 10thstreet to the north,” which would face the Canal District planned for The Bay. Another goal is for drivers and service vehicles to be able to reach the site with ease, she pointed out; the parking area below the building would be accessible from a service road connected to 10th Street and Boulevard of the Arts.

This graphic shows facets of the parking area and access to it. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Showing the commissioners more proposed facets of the lower lobby, on the second level of the building, Dunn noted that it might include a café, along with a gallery and multi-use space. It would remain open at all times, Dunn added, not just during events.

As for the flexible performance space on the second level: She noted images of the Tanglewood Learning Institute in Massachusetts. “It’s a large flat floor space with retractable seating that allows for performances,” as well as social events.

Additionally, she said, the project team looked at the potential of a simulcast screen that would allow people outside the center to see what is going on inside, like one used by the New World Symphony in Miami.

Then, showing the board another image, Dunn noted that a facility on the campus of Sonoma State University in California “literally opens itself up,” which the Sarasota structure could do.

The third level of the new facility in Sarasota would include the main performing arts hall and a grand lobby overlooking the water. The grand lobby would be used as an area for cocktails before events, Dunn continued. However, it also could accommodate weddings and other community functions at times the performing arts hall has no other events scheduled.

One key goal, the project team members emphasized, is the need to connect the new facility with the rest of The Bay park.

This graphic provides details about the various areas of the proposed new performing arts center. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The next steps, Dunn explained, will be submission of the team’s final report to city staff in January 2020. A parking study undertaken in collaboration with the Bay Park Conservancy and the Van Wezel Foundation will be part of that, she noted.

Additionally, Cheryl Mendelson, executive director of the Van Wezel Foundation told the board, city plans call for the convening of a blue ribbon committee that will offer advice on the future of the Van Wezel after the new facility opens.

(During planning sessions for The Bay, members of the public made it clear that they did not want the Van Wezel to be demolished.)

Facts and figures

Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel, took the opportunity of the Dec. 2 presentation to underscore the educational outreach in which she and her staff engage.

When she began her new job in Sarasota 12 years ago, Bensel said, she was told the Van Wezel could save a lot of money — amid the Great Recession — by eliminating its educational programs. Yet, she did not want to do that, she continued, and she was happy she refused.

The Van Wezel serves 30,000 students in five counties, she pointed out — from Hillsborough south to Charlotte. Programs are provided for 176 schools.

In collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center’s Partners in Education Program, she added, the Van Wezel staff works with 418 teachers in six counties.

This graphic shows results of the 2018 survey of Van Wezel patrons. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Bensel showed the commissioners the results of a 2018 survey of Van Wezel patrons. Of the 11,865 respondents — 7,743 of them full-time residents, she noted — 86% said they wanted a new performing arts hall in the city; 96% wanted touring shows and headliners in Sarasota; and 85% desired better amenities.

“Ninety-one percent see the Van Wezel as Sarasota’s No. 1 attraction,” she stressed.

More community outreach

As the final part of the presentation, Mendelson of the Van Wezel Foundation explained that her organization is working with the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee on a study that will show the expected impact of the new performing arts hall on the economy — including the creation of jobs and tourism. A USF faculty member, she pointed out, specializes in studies about the quality of life in Sarasota.

The Foundation also will have the help of 250 patron organizations throughout the region to help it conduct surveys about people’s aspirations and attitudes toward the plans for the new performing arts center. That initiative, she said, has been christened The Stage Is Yours.

Moreover, she said, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County has given the Foundation a $50,000 grant so it can send representatives to a variety of community events and social activities to ascertain public views for the planning process.

This slide shows examples of how the main hall and grand lobby could be designed in the new facility. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

At the conclusion of the presentation, Commissioner Hagen Brody said of the effort to replace the Van Wezel, “I think it’s coming along well.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie added that she hoped the Sasaki representatives would heed comments by a member of the public who addressed the commission that day, asking for more parking accommodations for patrons with disabilities.

On a motion by Commissioner Willie Shaw, the board members voted unanimously to formally accept what Shaw called “this very beautiful presentation.”