Memorial Boulevard Building Committee takes next step

Members of the Memorial Boulevard Cultural Center Building Committee, along with members of the public, listen to a question posed by Marie O'Brien, center right, to architect Kent McCoy across from the table. Dave Mills, clockwise from left, Tyler Smith, Dawn Leger, Eric Cushman, Roger Rousseau, Jake Carrier, Peter Del Mastro, and John Smith look on.

The Memorial Boulevard Cultural Center Building Committee voted unanimously to authorize the architects working on the restoration of the old school building to proceed to the next phase–development of design documents.

“Basically, we are satisfied with this design and now we want to get some detailed documents so the numbers can get better,” said Peter DelMastro, who ran the meeting while chairman Frank Stawski was away.

To drive home his point, Del Mastro said, if the theater wanted to bring in the current Broadway smash hit, “Hamilton,” this facility would be able to handle that kind of performance when it’s done.

“And that is what we want. We want it to be a regional theater that handles all kinds of things for the community and broader,” he said.

The design document phrase allows the architects and construction firm to obtain more accurate costs. Until now, all costs have been loose estimates based on conceptual drawings.

“As their team (the architectural firm) gets into the actual DDs further we will actually have things to take off,” said Gilbane’s Eric Cushman, construction manager.

“Frankly, we are just taking educated assumptions on what the design might be. When it starts to go on to paper, our assumptions can at least get quantified instead of just using our historic knowledge of the building.”

Even though the board voted to authorize the design documents, however, two issues must be resolved before the process can begin.  A first is whether to include all of the architects’ proposals at this point or delay them. A second is how many seats to include in the plans.

The committee met Thursday, July 14, at 9 a.m. in the meeting room outside council chambers. Present were committee members Peter DelMastro, John Smith and Jake Carrier. Absent were Council liaison Jodi Zils-Gagne and chairman Frank Stawski. DelMastro led the meeting.

Architects Kent McCoy and Tyler Smith represented Smith Edwards McCoy Architects and construction manager Eric Cushman represented Gilbane.

Also in attendance were Marie O’Brien, who co-chairs the MBCC non-profit board working in concert with the building committee to get the school operating as a cultural center.

In addition, three city employees were on hand: Roger Rousseau, Purchasing Agent, David Oakes, Public Works, Dawn Leger,Bristol Development Agency; as well as District 3 Councilman Dave Mills.

Getting to the design document phase, according to the architects and construction manager, provides other advantages, from tax credits up to $2.5 million and qualification for grants that involve hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A good portion of the conversation during the two-hour meeting revolved around how to keep costs within the $10 million budget. The latest cost update increased from $10.8 million presented in March to $12 million, after the architects incorporated feedback from a public hearing in May.

Changes from the original estimate that reduce costs includes leaving the existing theater entrance stairs alone, reducing the number of seats and reducing the space for first

floor tenants. (While the theater is the focus of the current effort, the long-range plan is to use the entire building for a cultural arts center, populating it possibly with start-ups, working artists and museum space.)

Changes that raised the March estimates involved an expanded entrance, a theater green room and supporting spaces, including a loading dock.

A highlight of the new plan is the removal of most of the seating in the balcony, the leveling of  the remaining area for a concession, and the dedication of the third floor entirely to a technical deck.

One benefit to this arrangement would be an uninterrupted view of the vaulted ceiling for all seats, since a large area of the first floor seating would also have been removed for a concession area.

Architect Kent McCoy points out a detail of the site plan. McCoy along with fellow architect Tyler Smith and construction manager Eric Cushman provided the building committee with the latest updates to the renovation of the former school building at a meeting on July 14 at City Hall.

Architect Kent McCoy points out a detail of the site plan. McCoy along with fellow architect Tyler Smith and construction manager Eric Cushman provided the building committee with the latest updates to the renovation of the former school building at a meeting on July 14 at City Hall.

Regarding the green room–or waiting area for performers as they enter and leave the stage–and associated spaces, such as dressing rooms and a loading deck, architect Tyler Smith said they could be deferred to a second phase, or to a time when supplemental funding became available.

“The green room, on the flip side,” he cautioned, “does a lot of things for you, a lot of important things. It gives you the loading dock, it gives you accessibility to the stage from the same level, and it gives you very important space for the performers.”

One of the main concerns about the theater, the architects emphasized time and time again, is that theater, while a remarkable structure was created as a school auditorium, and as a result, lacks elements that a working theater requires, such as, a lobby, ticket offices, clock rooms, as well as a green room, dressing rooms, and areas for concessions.

“As a result of the community input,” Tyler Smith said, “we were charged with the task to revisit the fundamental premises of the theater and how to make it the most viable flexible community cultural center it could be.”

In addition, Tyler Smith said, another charge from the hearing was to reduce the seating from 1,000 to something significantly less.

The architects based their proposal after a survey of local venues, from the Hepburn Theater in Old Saybrook, 249, Hartford Stage, 484, Yale Rep, 487, Infinity Norfolk, 300, Infinity Hartford, 500, Long Wharf, 690, Belden, Hartford, 908, and The Palace, Waterbury, 798.

Councilman Mills raised the issue about enough seats. That led to a discussion where another 100 seats could be added to the proposed 409, a number that would not “hemorrhage the envelope” of the proposal, according to Tyler Smith, but would also need further study.

Five hundred seats appeared to be the magic number for the board, which was in line with the business model that calls for selling 500 tickets per performance, according to O’Brien.

Currently, the theater holds over 900 seats.

The OM Show, a local favorite and an annual fundraiser for the Bristol Boys and Girls Club, would never be able to use the new theater, John Smith said.

That inaugurated a conversation about the mission of the theater, which when it is up and running will have to generate revenue to cover at least some of the operating costs.

“What is being developed here is something totally different than what is sitting there today,” Del Mastro said.

O’Brien said, “We are taking an auditorium and we are creating a theater. With a theater experience, you need to provide people with the sight lines to the stage. This stage was not designed for a major theater experience. It was designed as an auditorium, a fabulous auditorium.”

She added, however, that a final decision about the seats had not been made.

She said that the community, especially the theater community, which has been really a driving passionate force behind this project, deserved an opportunity to digest the proposal.

“I’d like to give them a chance to see and understand where the seats are, why they are there, and what the trade offs were, for example, the green room, for example the concession bar areas,” she said.

If these two issues can be resolved, the design documents would be available for approval sometime in November, which would mean that contracts could be signed sometime during the first quarter of 2017, when pricing is more competitive, according the Cushman.

Other issues raised involved the following: where musicians would locate during musicals–no provisions had been made for an orchestra pit but once alerted to the issue, the architects did come up with several alternatives; an update from Public Works that informed the committee the elevator was out of commission and would not be targeted for repairs; as well as a report about the clean up after a bout of vandalism.

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