Site-selection process continues for theater and dance center

Debate continues over the location of the new theater and dance center, which will be built as a result of a $20 million donation of Herbert Allen ’62.

Sasaki Associates, an architectural and landscape firm hired by the College earlier this year to review possible sites for the center, have recently narrowed down the number of possible sites from a list of 12 to three.

According to Director of Public Affairs James Kolesar, the first of the three final sites is in Denison Park, off Spring and Walden Streets; the second is near the Adams Memorial Theatre; and the third site is still undisclosed.

Director of Physical Plant Win Wassenar, who is on the planning committee for the project, added that Sasaki’s involvement in the project is on hold temporarily until the College comes out with a more complete report on the uses of the future center.

After Allen announced his donation last spring, the College designated the site at the intersection of Spring and Walden Streets in Denison Park for the new arts center. However, townspeople protested, because the placement would cause traffic problems and disrupt an ecological and historical space. As a result of these concerns, a group of townspeople and members of the College community banded together earlier this fall to form the Williamstown Community Association (WCA) in order to pressure the College to re-consider its decision.

Representatives from Sasaki met with townspeople in September to hear their concerns and explain the process by which a site would be selected. At the meeting, the representatives explained that they would lead a three-stage process through which the number of potential sites would be narrowed down to one.

The announcement of the final three sites represents the start of the second phase of the process.

Alan Resnick, one of the project coordinators at Sasaki, said he and his team weighed the townspeople’s considerations in arriving at the final three choices.

“In spirit, at least, I think the work we’re doing is consistent with the criteria list with a few exceptions,” Resnick said. Resnick said the various criteria, which included such factors as noise impact, traffic impact, topography and property value, were weighed at different levels and were sometimes evaluated based on experience rather than primary data.

“If you want to measure the noise level of a facility, you can do that without actually going out and measuring noise,” he said, emphasizing that similar facilities served as models.

Resnick stressed that none of the three selected sites are final.

However, some members of the WCA are not satisfied with either the site review process or the outcome. According to a November 20 article in the Berkshire Eagle, several townspeople sent a letter of protest to President of the College Harry Payne on November 10. The authors of the letter objected to the inclusion of the Denison Park site on the final list and called for a more thorough site review process. Furthermore, they asked for deeper consideration of the facility’s impact on the environment and the town.

Francis Barker, a Williamstown resident and member of the WCA, said, “We are opposed to the performing arts center . . . at the Denison Park site for zoning and environmental reasons.”

According to Barker, the primary concern is the impact the center will have on the wetlands in Denison Park.

Wassenar agreed that the wetlands are a concern, but added that the College will keep all construction within environmental regulations.

“There is 100 foot buffer zone around any wetland area,” he said. “You can build within those areas— you have to negotiate with the conservation commission and work within their guidelines.”

“The theatre would be prohibited under normal zoning bylaws,” Barker said. “But because the College says it is being used for educational reasons, the College feels as though it can do whatever it pleases, and that really angers me.”

Barker said he thinks the best alternative would be to expand the Adams Memorial Theatre.

Kolesar said Payne is currently drafting a response to the letter from the members of the WCA.

Payne said he is confident that Sasaki will select the best site.

“As always, we are seeking to work creatively and sensitively with all concerned as we plan the project,” Payne said. “The [WCA] letter was about the process being used by the planning firm Sasaki Associates in its site evaluation study. The letter seemed to suggest that the process should follow certain governmental procedures.”

“Sasaki Associates is a firm of strong international reputation and the College trusts it to apply its high professional standards in determining the scope and detail of work needed to produce a site evaluation study,” he added. “This study should prove helpful in the later permitting process. It is not, however, a governmental procedure, although it has involved considerable public comment and will be incorporating even more. And even when this study is done, more information gathering and design work will need to be done on the ultimate site.”

Town resident Dagmar Bubriski, a member of the Williamstown Community Association, has also expressed concern about the Denison Park site.

She said the townspeople were pleased when the College hired Sasaki to review the potential sites, but she objects to the recent decision to continue investigating the Denison Park site.

“It’s absolutely insane to think about Denison Park,” she said, adding that she hopes the College will settle on the site situated near Adams Memorial Theatre.

“The Greylock site is the most suitable one, and it makes the most sense for everybody,” she said.

However, Bubriski said she doubts the College will listen to the townspeople.

“I sort of give up on the College,” she said. “They just don’t think clearly. They just have too much money. They’ll probably come out with the most stupid conclusion.”

Resnick re-iterated his claim that no final decisions have been made.

“I do not know yet where the building will be put,” he said. “I think things could change.”

He said Sasaki will hold another town meeting when it is through with 80 percent of its work.

Currently Resnick is awaiting information from the College on the uses and components of the theatre and dance center.

Chair of the Music Department David Kechley, who is a member of the College building committee overseeing the planning process for the new complex, said the College recently hired another consultant—Robert Davis and Associates—to consider the possible uses of the building.

Kechley said the consulting firm is working with the committee to determine details such as the desired number of bathrooms, classrooms and performance spaces.

“[The consultants] are supposed to get all of this together in a package for the architect, in what is called a ‘building program,’ “ Kechley said.

Resnick said he anticipates that the building program will be complete in January, and he will then be able to meet with the townspeople again.

“They’re going to give a public presentation of their whole thought process,” said Kolesar. “It would be counter-productive for them to explain themselves at this point.”

Sasaki is expected to announce its final site recommendation at the beginning of second semester.

Professor of Theater David Eppel, who is chairing the committee on the theater and dance center, said he still supports the Denison Park site.

“I have always liked the Walden Street site,” he said. “It extends the line of development which begins with Mission Park, crosses Route 2, and includes the new Science Quad. And for the public performance aspect of the building – it creates an exciting venue for the campus and the town during the academic year. We have a fair sized local theatre and dance going public, right here in Northern Berkshitre County.”