Panel named to select architect for new Sarasota Performing Arts

A rendering that shows where the new performing arts center will possibly be placed in Sarasota The Bay park.

Originally published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Even as the proposed new Sarasota Performing Arts Center remains a hot topic of debate among Sarasota City Commission candidates and members of the public, the Van Wezel Foundation is moving forward by announcing a task force to select an architectural design firm.

The five-person committee, made up of community members with business and arts backgrounds, will spend the next few months overseeing the process of choosing a firm. The task force’s meetings will be open to the public and operate according to Florida’s “sunshine” laws because of the public-private partnership that is behind it, said Cheryl Mendelson, CEO of the foundation which is overseeing the project.

Earlier this year, the City Commission voted 3-2 to approve a partnership agreement with the foundation for the planning, financing, design and construction of the center that is intended to replace the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The city and foundation will split the estimated $300 million to $350 million cost. The state has awarded the Foundation a $1 million grant to fund the architectural firm selection process.

Current plans call for a 2,250-seat main stage theater, about 500 more than the Van Wezel, and a 400-seat flexible performance and event space. There will also be room for administrative offices, education programs and more. The mission for the project, developed from thousands of responses from the public, is to: “nurture excellence in artists; inspire wonder in audiences; spark curiosity in learners,” Mendelson said.

Sarasota Performing Arts Center —the heart of the park 

The foundation also is working in collaboration with the Bay Park Conservancy, which has opened the first phase of a public park that will eventually turn the Van Wezel parking lot into green space. The Sarasota Performing Arts Center is planned to be at the heart of the park.

Mendelson expects the committee’s selection process to take about six months.

There are no architects on the committee “because we recognized that most of the architects we probably would be interested in might well want to apply for this project and that presented us with a dilemma,” said Jenne Britell, who will chair the task force. 

Britell, who serves as vice chair of the foundation board, spent many years as a senior executive of GE Capital and was chairman of United Rentals until 2019. She also has served on other corporate and non-profit boards.

She is joined by Mary Bensel, the executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall (appointed as a city representative); foundation board member Mark Famiglio, a 50-year resident of Sarasota and a co-founder of the Sarasota Film Festival who has numerous business interests including real estate, construction and finance; foundation board member Michele Hooper, who specializes in governance issues for major companies; and Larry Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, who was appointed as a representative of the Sarasota community.

The task force will be working with Paratus Group, a project management firm with experience in “providing guidance in building projects like this,” Mendelson said. 

“We’re going to do a lot of exploration,” Britell said. “We really do want it to reflect the best that there is today, just as the Van Wezel reflected the best of its time.” 

Britell said committee members are expected to enter the process with open minds.

“There is no specific design and no specific person. We are going to visit projects that have been done that seem to be really outstanding and represent the use of space and energy efficiency that one has a right to expect in a project of this kind,” Britell said.

The committee also will be seeking the public’s input, beginning with the first meeting at 10 a.m. on Oct. 31.

“It is my experience that the end result is always better when you have the benefit of lots of intelligent informed people who want to participate,” Britell said. “When there’s a small group of finalists, they will come here and present and we will have a town hall-type of meeting. We want something beautiful, but energy efficient, representative of the diversity of the community, useful for various kinds of programs. It’s a daunting effort.”

The committee will begin with a request for qualifications from interested firms to provide background information and proof that they are able to take on a project of this size and scope. The committee will then request proposals based on the requirements set forth in the agreements. Mendelson and Britell said they hope to receive interest from a broad and diverse range of architectural firms.

The new performing arts center is intended to replace the 52-year-old Van Wezel, which is considered small among major touring performance venues in the country and is listed as the city’s most vulnerable structure because it sits in a flood zone. Leaders have said a state-of-the-art venue with more seats may lead to Sarasota getting Broadway tours more quickly after they open in New York. 

But the project has been the subject of much debate for its cost, location (near the Bay) and because the Sarasota Orchestra recently announced plans to build a music center on Fruitville Road near I-75. The building could be competing with the performing arts center for some programming.

Mendelson said the location of the building on the Bay Park site has been moved based on FEMA recommendations about a wave action zone.

”The exciting challenge for the architect is to think about a next-generation building and how does climate change impact design,” Mendelson said. “There is enormous work being done in the architectural world now in that area.¨

The Van Wezel Foundation recently launched a page on its website to address questions and what Mendelson said were misperceptions about the project at vwfoundation.org/onpoint.

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