Community meeting considers site of arts center

Two town meetings last week focused on the impact that the College’s proposed theatre and arts center would have on Williamstown and its residents.

At the meetings, many residents expressed anger that they were not a part of the process of selecting a site for the new arts center.

On Thursday night, Allen Resnick and Dennis Swinford, members of Sasaki Associates, met with community members at the Williams Inn. The College has hired Sasaki Associates to explore different sites for the new facility. While Sasaki Associates is looking for a site, it is not the architectural firm for the building.

On Saturday morning almost 40 citizens, students, and faculty attended a meeting of the newly formed Williamstown Community Association at the Williamstown Public Library. Members of the association, which was pieced together by several citizens to protect the community’s interests in selecting the site of the new center, considered their future role in the planning process at the meeting.

Thursday’s meeting

“We come to campus without any previous involvement in the process of choosing a site for the new facility,” Resnick said. “We are here on a mission of discovery and we see an important integrity connected to the participation of the community in this process.”

Resnick explained that the new facility will likely be 60,000 to 70,000 square feet. Its “footprint,” the amount of land the facilityoccupies, will likely be 30,000 to 40,000 feet. In comparison, the Field House has a footprint of about 40,000 square feet.

Although there have been many rumors about the location of the new facility, Resnick explained that Sasaki Associates will be looking into many different sites. To that end, he explained a three stage process that his firm will undergo in looking for a site.

The first stage of the project is the discovery phase. In this phase, Sasaki Associates will be investigating and analyzing potential sites. They will take into account such factors as topography, environmental considerations, traffic, utilities and the town’s infrastructure. With these in mind, they will indentify anywhere from between five and 20 “candidate sites.”

Resnick continued, “Once we identify these candidate sites we will take a careful look at the mission of the College and how that mission relates to the town.”

The second stage of the process will include further screening the candidate sites. Based on these screenings, they will decide on three to six sites and test those against the program that the College has in mind for the facility. Then they will make a recommendation on one site.

The third stage will refine thinking around the one site. At this point, Sasaki Associates will seek community input. Resnick was quick to say that there will be several opportunities for community members to give their input in the process. He also said he hopes to make some preliminary site recommendations in three to four weeks.

Questions and answers.

Resnick said he envisions the new performing arts center as an academic facility containing offices and classrooms as well as having a main theatre space and a “black box” – a space similar to the Adams Memorial Theatre Down Stage, which could be used for experimental theatre. He also anticipates a main theatre space with a seating capacity for approximately 350 to 550 people.

In response to one question about the necessity of another theatre space on campus, especially given the fact that on average there are about five theatre majors a year, Resnick answered that the characteristics for teaching theatre are different than for large theatrical productions.

Resnick also noted that Sasaki Associates has not met with Allen and presently has no plans to do so.

As an architectural and landscape firm, Sasaki Associates is known primarily for its work on college and university campuses. Resnick and Swinford have recently worked on planning for the University of Maryland at College Park, University of North Carolina at Greensboro and St. George’s Boarding School in Newport Rhode Island.

After the meeting, participants gave their reactions. Zane Lumelsky, a member of the Williamstown Community Association, said, “Having Sasaki is a big step forward. They had a lot valuable to say. I think that the most important thing for the College to do is rebuild trust with the community. In fact, I think the biggest question is how can the College build the trust that has been damaged in the way in which they have dealt with expanding their buildings. We think that community members should be true participants in what happens in this community.”

President of the College Harry C. Payne, in an interview after the meeting, said, “We always try to be good neighbors and citizens. As soon as we found out about the gift we announced what our plans were. We also announced our good faith intention to address such concerns as traffic, damage to wetlands. We have been very forthright.”

According to Payne, the College has identified as its primary location the area at the end of Spring Street, south of Walden Street. “The College has determined on its best judgement that the facility would go well down there. When we hired Sasaki we asked them to examine the virtues of the primary site and hear every possible concern about that site and see how the college could answer those problems. Secondly, if there is a great liability in the primary site, they should evaluate other possible sites as if they are starting from scratch,” he said.

Payne said the College has long thought that the area would be a good place to build. He noted that Mission Park was almost built there.

Longtime Williamstown resident Dagmar Bubriski hopes the meeting represents a step in the right direction. “The meeting was very helpful,” she said, “It’s nice to know who’s doing the planning. Williams’s expansion has been enough of a disaster. It used to be that Williamstown was a prime residential area. I don’t think that Williams College should be able to destroy the residential aspect of the town because of selfishness. I think that’s a sin. Williamstown is an old town, we should preserve its historic ambiance. The College doesn’t see m to care. As for the new theatre facility, I think that the area behind Greylock would be a perfect spot. There wouldn’t have to be any destruction of historic space.”

In response to the perception that the College is “ever expanding,” Payne said, “All the building we’ve been doing is on Williams land that has belonged to the College for a long time. We own a certain amount of property and we are making more intensive use of our land. The primary site acually has a bit of a buffer from the nearest residential houses.”

Saturday’s meeting

Lumelsky led the discussion of the site selection process. Noting that “the neighborhoods are underrepresented in the decisions for the development of Williamstown,” Lumelsky spoke of the need to create a dialogue between all sectors of the town to resolve the problems revolving around the new complex. “In this meeting I’m exercising my rights as a citizen, and I’m not fighting the College,” he said. “That’s not what this meeting is for.”

The problems concerning the new building have been slowly coming to a boil for several months. In early May of last year, Williams graduate Herb Allen ’62 presented Williams with a $20 million donation which was quickly earmarked for the new theatre and dance complex. Payne announced that the building would be placed near the intersection of Spring and Latham streets, on a site in Denision Park.

This plan was met with immediate criticism from the residen
ts of the area. Citing the possibilities of increased traffic and other disruptive influences that such a building could bring to a small residential neighborhood, citizens began to call for a reevaluation of the college’s plans.

The Williamstown Community Association was quick to respond to the latest developments. “It was a great thing that the college did by hiring Sasaki,” said member David Horton.” “But we think the study should have been done before the site selection.” Lumelsky, who met with representatives with Sasaki earlier this week, agreed with his colleague. “When Sasaki says they’re looking at all sites equally, I’ve got to take that at face value.” But he expressed a measured amount of nervousness with the situation.

Lumelsky stressed the legal issues of the College’s plans. “Here in Massachusetts, private colleges have been exempt from local zoning bylaws. . .since 1975,”he said. Citing the 1993 Massachusetts Supreme Court case Trustees of Tufts College v. City of Medford, which upholds the ability of an educational institution to transcend local zoning laws, but also requires reasonable compromises between the school and local governments, Lumelsky demanded an open dialogue to iron out disagreements. “This building is not allowed under any circumstances” except by educational exemption,” he said.

Lumelsky’s comments on town-gown relations quickly turned into a debate. “Relations have been disintegrating to the point that the town is at a great disadvantage and is not a partner in the college’s mission,”he said. He spoke of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a model of a school striving toward solid community relations. “I was talking to the President of Clark, and he said that ‘it’s our job to make people want to live next to Clark.’” Lumelsky wondered why this sentiment is not as widespread as it should be in higher education.

Several people expressed concern about the gulf between the town and the administration. “What I would like to see from Williams are statistics about the utilization of these projected facilities. But we don’t hear these things from them,” resident Ray Kijima said.

Payne, in a later interview, noted that “It is a little premature to know the exact specifiactions for the utilization of the space. The gift arrived ahead of our programming for it. The overwhelming use will be for the teaching of theatre and dance, the secondary use would be for visiting troops to perform. But this is all still being worked out. It’s too early to know all the specifics.”

“Williams is very evasive,” said resident Dale Bradley. “When you ask [the College] questions, you don’t get definite answers.”

Resident Daniel Gendron spoke at length about the town-gown relations in Williamstown. “There has to be an official connection between the two sides. This site selection is another example of the college’s intrusion into the neighborhood without looking at the effects,” he said. But Gendron continued with a hope for the future. “We need to have an official mechanism between the town and the school.”

Bubriski spoke of what she saw as a failed “official mechanism.”

“We had the town-gown committee a few years ago, but it seemed the College didn’t care about us,” she said. She was met with waves of nods and objections. Bubriski, a resident of Hoxsey Street, recalled a precedent of Williams growth. “In 1964, Williams told us that there was no specific site for the new science center, but in 1966 the houses came down on Hoxsey street and they built Bronfman. Bronfman was born with tremendous antagonism.”

Several people quickly stressed the need to look forward and put old battles by the wayside. “We should concentrate more on the here and now and start to go forward and work out some sort of cooperation with the college,” said Elisabeth Goodman, a representative of the Williamstown Community Associate’s legal consultants Bernstein, Chushner and Kimmell. But Bubriski’s comments clearly unearthed old frustrations in the crowd.

The timetable of the Sasaki report was also a cause of speculation. Professor of Biology Hank Art told the crowd that Sasaki was planning to collect data and work up an initial report by January, and he hoped to see a final recommendation by the beginning of second semester. Art, who is teaching an environmental planning workshop this semester, has been carefully examining the situation and working through it with his students.

The meeting ended with a curious mood of suspicion and optimism. “The WCA started out in response to the first site of the arts center,” said Horton, “and we will work toward ongoing plans. That would be step number two, and it would be great.”

“When he announced the gift, Payne said that it was a ‘transforming gift to the college and the town’—transforming in what way?” said Lumelsky. “These are the answers we need. You may say we’re fighting Williams College, but I’d say we’re improving Williams College.”

Dale Bradley addressed the school as the meeting began to lose its momentum. “They have the money,” he said, “the question is: do they have the will to improve the entire community?” A tide of nods swept through the audience.