Karins Engineering awarded $292,000 City of Sarasota contract to undertake comprehensive analysis of conditions of Van Wezel

Commissioner Arroyo objects to proposal for work, saying it is intended just to appease ‘less than five people’

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is located on the city of Sarasota’s bayfront. File photo

On a 4-1 vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission agreed to pay $292,100 to the Karins Engineering firm, which has an office in Sarasota, to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the city’s waterfront.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo opposed the contract, arguing that he did not find the analysis necessary. He said that it was being pursued only because “a small group of less than five people” have been contending that the Van Wezel can continue to function well into the future.

As the Agenda Request Form characterized the work, Karins’ assessment “will ensure compliance with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood regulations and the Florida Building Code and identify necessary structural and safety improvements. It will address critical areas such as flood resistance, wind analysis, structural integrity, and building code compliance.”

Karins also was the firm that City Manager Marlon Brown hired to undertake an analysis of the Van Wezel in 2021. This will be a much more thorough review, Brown pointed out during the commission’s July 1 discussion about the new Karins contract.

Almost exactly a year ago, the city commissioners appointed a Purple Ribbon Committee, whose members have specific types of expertise. They have been charged with making a determination on the future of the Van Wezel, with a new performing arts venue proposed to be constructed in the city’s 53-acre Bay Park in downtown Sarasota.

The nonprofit Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation — previously the Van Wezel Foundation — is due in November to deliver to the City Commission a proposed agreement including the final estimated expense of that project. In April 2022, the City Commission approved a preliminary agreement with the Foundation, which calls for the city to cover half of the expense of a new Sarasota Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

The Foundation members have made it clear that, if the Van Wezel is deemed sufficiently safe to remain in use, they do not want it to compete with the SPAC for productions.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo makes a point on July 1. News Leader image

“It seems to be,” Arroyo told his colleagues on July 1, “that nobody — correct me if I’m wrong — nobody is saying we’re going to continue using [the Van Wezel]. It’s leaning towards preservation of some sort, something other than continuing to use it forever?”

City Manager Brown replied, “The intent is to repurpose it, if, indeed, that is the intent of this commission. So whatever that may look like in the future, the building — or some aspect of the building — will be preserved for some type of use,” Brown explained.

“Do we truly need this report?” Arroyo asked.

“Yes,” Brown told him, “because there are individuals out there, Commissioner, that believe that the Van Wezel, in its current configuration, can function to draw contemporary, modern theatrical performances.”
“How many individuals?” Arroyo asked.

Brown chuckled and then said, “I don’t know.”

That factor should not be driving policy, Arroyo replied.

Commissioner Debbie Trice told Arroyo that she has been attending the Purple Ribbon Committee meetings. “They have not as yet expressed any kind of conclusions,” she said of the members. “They’re very much open to ‘Let’s gather more information; let’s understand the situation more thoroughly.’ ”

Trice added, “I think it’s critical that the Scope of Work [for the new Karins analysis] … includes the functionality of the building, the loading docks. … [For example,] Is the theatrical equipment … working well?” She stressed, “All of this information can be provided to the Purple Ribbon Committee so they can make a thorough, well thought-out recommendation to us.”

Moreover, Trice noted that “a lot of people in the city appear to … think very highly of [the previous Karins report]. I think having the follow-up report coming from Karins is very important, rather than going to some other vendor for the study.”

At one point, Trice read a section in the Scope of Work: “A final summary will encapsulate the process, key findings, and proposed action steps. It will stress the importance of the recommended changes for the safety, functionality, and longevity of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. By delivering this final report, the assessment will provide a clear and actionable strategy for enhancing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, ensuring it remains a safe, efficient, and effective venue for years.”

This is a banner on the Karins Engineering homepage.

“It’s key to me,” Trice told her colleagues, “that the Scope of Work was written in such a way that it is the long-term objective to making [the Van Wezel] a long-term viable building, as opposed to saying, ‘Should we tear it down? ’ … I appreciate the way this was worded.”

City Manager Brown thanked Trice. “I know there are individuals out there who believe that that’s the intent of the city,” he added, referring to the demolition of the Van Wezel.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch reminded everyone “that part of the Purple Ribbon Committee’s directive was to look at repurposing the building,” along with the potential of its continued use as a performing arts center. The commission voted on that, she stressed.

When Commissioner Arroyo asked City Engineer Nik Patel why the city needed this new report, since Brown had had the earlier one prepared, Patel pointed out that that 2021 study was limited in scope. It “looked at key components, [such as] flood-proofing, deferred maintenance and seating expansion,” Patel explained. “This is a more comprehensive look at the entire building.”

Arroyo suggested that perhaps the principal of Karins Engineering should have been appointed to the Purple Ribbon Committee.

Mayor Liz Alpert also expressed appreciation for the “very thorough Scope of Work,” adding that she believes the commissioners need to make their decisions on the basis of facts.

The historic designation factor

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. News Leader image

Before the July 1 vote, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch asked City Engineer Patel whether the Karins team would consider the effects that historic designation of the Van Wezel would have on certain FEMA requirements for buildings located in flood zones.

Until the City Commission designates the Van Wezel an historic building, City Manager Marlon Brown told Ahearn-Koch, the Karins group will review the structure “as is. So right now, that is not part of the scope.”

She replied that the Karins group nonetheless could consider the potential that the building would win designation as an historic structure; then, the report could provide information about FEMA requirements in that context.

“We are doing a full assessment,” Brown stressed. “We are not doing [the analysis] based on whether [the Van Wezel is] historic. We want to do this transparently,” Brown continued. “We want to make sure that every aspect of that building is covered in this assessment. … We don’t want to cut any corners because of the potential of its being designated.”

“I understand,” Ahearn-Koch told him, adding that the report is going to provide recommendations for solutions to issues and offer cost estimates for them. For example, she explained, if the report noted that the roof was damaged, it might include a number of options for addressing that. She would want the report to include an option pertaining to the historic designation, as well, Ahearn-Koch said.

If the commissioners ended up according the Van Wezel the historic designation, Brown replied, then they could discuss options under those circumstances.

Ahearn-Koch tried another approach, indicating that she was interested in the fact that historic designation would be “a tool to reduce costs” in responding to structural problems that Karins identifies. She did concur with Brown about the need for a fully transparent report: “Absolutely,” she said.

“I leave it up to the [commission] to make that decision [about the historic designation factor],” Brown told Ahearn-Koch.

“So the answer’s ‘No,’ ” she said.

“It’s up to this body,” Brown responded.

“I’m not saying we should designate it,” Ahearn-Koch told him.

That is not in the scope of work, Brown replied. If the commission wants it to be, the commission can take the appropriate action, he said.

Further details about the approved Scope of Work

Ahearn-Koch also asked City Engineer Patel about safety assessments enumerated in the Scope of Work, adding that she was curious about whether the city already has some of that information. Is the expectation that the Karins staff will “delve much more deeply” into those issues, she asked, or is Karins “just going to confirm the information?”

Sarasota City Engineer Nik Patel. News Leader image

Patel told her that, for example, an assessment of the facility’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines recently was completed. Karins will confirm the information produced by that study, he added, and focus, as well, on any implications of the findings and the cost of any modifications that need to be made.

“So they’ll use the resources that we have and add on to that?”

Patel told her that was correct.

Further, Ahearn-Koch noted “a lot of language in [the Scope of Work]” regarding whether the Van Wezel will continue to be used for a range of performing arts productions. She asked if the Karins team would consider just the existing seat count or look at the potential of reduced seating.

“They’re going to be assessing it the way it is today,” Patel replied, based on the guidance from the Purple Ribbon Committee.

Next, Ahearn-Koch inquired about language regarding the effects of the buildout of the area surrounding the Van Wezel, in regard to the facility’s vulnerabilities. She asked whether that referred to “the full, full, full, 20 years’ buildout,” with a new performing arts venue in place in The Bay Park.

Commissioner Trice told Patel, “When I read that, my assumption was more along the lines of groundwater flow as affected by the development of The Bay Park and other things [in the area].”

“That’s correct,” Patel told Trice.

In response to another question from Ahearn-Koch, Patel said he meant the inclusion of all of the structures planned for the park, including restaurants.

“That’s assuming the most intense [buildout that has been discussed]?” Ahearn-Koch asked.

The language in the Scope of Work was based on what the City Commission has approved as the full buildout of the Bay Park, Patel said.

Trice asked for confirmation that Patel had reviewed the full Scope of Work with the Purple Ribbon Committee members and that “they blessed [it].”

“That’s correct,” he told her.

“This is really for them,” Trice said of the committee members.

Commissioner Kyle Battie asked what the average life expectancy is for a building. Is it in the range of 40 or 50 years?

Patel told him that a commercial building could last about 100 years.

The Van Wezel’s website says the structure was completed in 1969, making it about 55 years old.

This is a section of the Van Wezel’s website. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Reprising the historic designation issue

When Alpert asked for a motion, Commissioner Trice made it, calling for approval of the agreement. Battie seconded it.

After the motion was made, Ahearn-Koch tried once more to gain the support of her colleagues for the new report to consider options related to the potential designation of the Van Wezel as an historic structure. She asked whether Tice would add that to the motion.

Trice pointed out that she found nothing in the Scope of Work that excluded an evaluation of such options. However, Trice also noted that several members of the Purple Ribbon Committee “are focused on historic preservation.” Therefore, she continued, she believes that it “goes without saying that that will be part of their discussion and consideration.”

Ahearn-Koch again asked City Manager Brown for clarification of his earlier comments that options related to historic designation would not be part of the Karins study, which indicated that the committee members would not be discussing such factors.

“The Purple Ribbon Committee can have that discussion until the cows come home,” Brown responded.

Moreover, Brown pointed out, if the commissioners agreed at this stage to allow Karins to consider historic designation as a tool or assessment factor, the Request for Proposals that the city issued, which led to Karins being recommended for the contract, would have to be modified and advertised again.

Mayor Alpert pointed out that Brown was correct, since the three other companies that joined Karins in bidding on the Request for Proposals did not review a scope of work that included the historic designation factor.

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