By Carrie Seidman.
In 2015 – during the earliest imaginings of The Bay, Sarasota’s waterfront makeover – the Van Wezel Foundation, with city support, engaged a leading arts and entertainment consultant to determine the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall’s ability to continue serving as the cultural anchor of the Gulf Coast for the next 50 years. At the time, the distinctively purple, shell-shaped venue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son-in-law and completed in 1968, was 47 years old.
After assessing the hall’s facilities and operations, consultant AMS Research & Planning posed four possibilities: Maintain the status quo; do limited renovations to improve sound and patron experience; add ancillary spaces to expand options and programming; or build a replacement.
Sarasota Performing Arts Center gains steam
Keeping the status quo, AMS argued, would limit the hall’s profitability, programming and competitive ability and leave it vulnerable to climate change. The next two options were also summarily dismissed as “unfeasible,” based on the argument that their cost would exceed the FEMA “50% rule,” which limits expenditures on renovations in flood plains to half the building’s value (at the time $30 million). New construction, the 223-page report concluded – at an estimated cost of $150-$525 million – was the way to go.
The Bayfront 20/20 organization (now The Bay Conservancy), embraced that idea and ran with it. On the earliest site map of the park, the Van Wezel was nowhere to be found, while the nearby “Sarasota Performing Arts Center” (SPAC) became the focal point of the project.
Public outcry – and a survey that showed 80% of residents were against demolishing the “Purple Cow” – forced what designers called “a course correction.” Subsequent maps showed a “footprint” of the Van Wezel and came with assurances that the building would be “repurposed.” The term was left intentionally vague, with suggestions that ranged from keeping the building intact to retaining the roof for an outdoor pavilion to marking its shape with memorial flags.
Since then, the Conservancy and the city have forged ahead with the performing arts center – despite the Sarasota Orchestra’s decision to jump ship and build its own venue – while deftly kicking discussions of the Van Wezel down the road. In April, commissioners agreed to a contract making the city responsible for half the cost of the new performing arts center, an estimated $175 million. The contract also prohibits the Van Wezel (if retained) from hosting performing arts events.
This past week, the foundation seated a “blue ribbon” review committee tasked with selecting an architect for the new hall, a process expected to take six months. Meanwhile, the “purple ribbon” committee the city promised to assemble to determine the Van Wezel’s future has yet to take shape.
Van Wezel could be nominated for historic register
Since this all began, the Van Wezel has had a few more birthdays. It is now 54 years old – which qualifies it for nomination to the National Register of Historic Buildings and potentially for the extensive tax incentives and credits that can come with such a designation. That’s money that could cover the cost of the previously rejected options to harden the facility against sea level rise and renovate it to competitive standards.
So before we proceed with the commitment to build a hugely expensive new facility that is, let’s face it, is just as vulnerable to climate change, shouldn’t we pursue historic designation for the Van Wezel and explore whether it can be retrofitted to meet the community’s needs? If not on its own, then as a counterpart to a downscaled SPAC?
Of course, there’s still the problem of that pesky contract the city signed – without, I might add, guaranteed philanthropic support or assurance of financial sustainability. Renegotiating the contract terms during the upcoming implementation stage to allow preservation of the Van Wezel may still be possible, even if the Sarasota Performing Arts Center proceeds as planned, though thus far city commissioners have shown little interest in doing so.
Elections could change the project’s course
That could change after the upcoming election. All three candidates for City Commission – Jen Ahern-Koch, Dan Lobeck and Debbie Trice – support nominating the Van Wezel for historic designation, fighting its demolition and exploring options for its continued use. Former Sarasota mayor Fredd Atkins, running for County Commission, has argued against building the SPAC entirely, based on economic grounds; his opponent, architect Mark Smith, has estimated the Van Wezel could be waterproofed to FEMA requirements for perhaps a tenth of the cost of replacing it with a new structure.
Recently I spent an afternoon with former Mayor Mollie Cardamone, who reminisced about the community’s past fights to save the original Paul Rudolph-designed Riverview High School (demolished in 2009) and the old Sarasota High School (restored and the current home of the Sarasota Museum of Art). What made the difference?
In both cases, she said, there were knowledgeable, committed residents working on multiple fronts to save the buildings in a town that has earned the nickname “Tearasota” for the alacrity with which it demolishes it own historic architecture. What made the difference, she said, was not only loud and sustained activism from residents, but elected officials and administrators who, regardless of their own leanings, supported the citizens’ choice.
So….two messages here. If you don’t want to see the Purple Cow go the way of the Lido Casino, the Ringling Towers or the old railroad station, support the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation in seeking National Register designation for the Van Wezel and advocate for its continued viability. Then cast your vote for candidates who will do the same, putting fiscal responsibility and the preservation of community heritage ahead of politics.