Tensions ran high at a Thursday night presentation by Sasaki Associates about the site selection process for the new Performing Arts Center. The meeting was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga that began last April when Herb Allen ’62 announced his gift for the construction of the center.
A large crowd of townspeople and faculty members came to the meeting, held in Biology 111. Since the college announced a site for the new center last year – on the south side of Walden Street – without consulting citizens or town officials, discussions of the issue have been fiery. Sasaki, a Boston architectural firm, was hired to produce an unbiased site study for the college, and this report was their first public presentation since beginning work.
Allen Resnick, one of two representatives sent by Sasaki to the campus, called this their “eighty-percent report,” explaining that while their study was nearing completion, there was still time to get feedback from the townspeople to make final changes. “We feel as though we have a distinct direction, but we’d like comments too.”
The evening was characterized by interactions between nervous speakers and a frustrated audience. President of the College Harry C. Payne opened the evening with general remarks, and was followed by three Williams students who presented their findings from a semester-long project on this issue, undertaken last fall. The students, Cordelia Ransom ’00, Taylor Schildgen ’00, and Courtney Stokes ’99, explained the needs of the college and spoke of the benefits of building a performing arts center.
Quoting Physical Education Professor and dance program coordinator Sandra Burton, the team of students noted that Williams is not on par with other liberal arts schools when it comes to offering adequate facilities for dance and theatre. At present, the students reported, dance companies perform in Lasell Gymnasium, and since the program has experienced great growth since its inception in 1970, the college is in dire need of a new facility.
Following the student presentation, Resnick and his colleague Dennis Swinford spoke to the audience about their site selection plans. After showing the locations of eight different sites scattered around campus, Resnick centered on two particular localities: the field behind Greylock and the embattled Walden Street plot, just to the southwest of Robin’s Restaurant.
In speaking of the Walden Street site, Resnick said that “in September there was a certain amount of skepticism in the group about our objectivity.” This meeting was no differentâ€”townspeople met the quick reentry of the Walden Street plot onto the site selection stage with sharp suspicion. “I believe we have been objective in looking at the various sites,” Resnick explained, but others saw their decision as something of a rubber stamp.
President Payne agrees with Resnick, however, citing his own experience with Sasaki representatives. “The Walden site was not a ‘guaranteed winner,’” he said. “Our own knowledge of our holdings and our own analyses had long made that area a primary location for potential future building. We asked Sasaki to test that assumption from scratch, however. Having been interviewed by them, I can assure you that they ask very tough questions and do not allow any assumptions to stand without scrutiny.”
The Sasaki representatives explained the major criteria for the building and the plot, the most important of which was size. For a building to include two theatres (200 seats and 550 seats respectively), support spaces, offices, and classrooms, Swinford said, it would need to cover one acre of land. He calculated that the site, which would also include parking spaces and “breathing room,” would need to be between two and-a-half and three acres in size.
Because of various size and environmental questions, Sasaki found the Walden site to “have significant resources to allow the College to accommodate the building and parking.” Resnick made note that there “are remaining issues, but at least we have a direction.”
The representatives then opened the floor to a fierce question and answer period. Many attendees found problems with the Walden site, speaking particularly of the wetlands and creek that lie on the projected plot. Questions about traffic access to the area and the impact of the building itself on the character of the neighborhood also materialized.
“The Walden Street site is very difficult for the town, traffic, and the old, established residential area around it,” said Williamstown resident Dagmar Bubriski. She highlighted the problems the neighborhood has had with heavy construction traffic from the construction of the new science center and suggested the new performing arts center would cause more problems.
Several citizens were also wary about the costs of building on the Walden Street site. Also, in order for the Walden Street site to be used, historic Doughty House and possibly other structures would have to be torn down. The site behind Greylock has no existing buildings but, as Payne pointed out, a very useful and attractive grassy area would be lost to construction.
As a counterpoint, several Spring Street business owners spoke of the economic benefits the center could bring. The center promises to add to the traffic in that area, a side effect typically loathed by residents but coveted by restaurants and shops. Sasaki also committed themselves to avoid taking existing parking away, promising only to develop new parking lots that could be used by the public during the day. “I have the opposite position of Mrs. Bubriski,” one owner said, “I’m very happy to see this as the preferred site.”
Zane Lumelsky, head of the Williamstown Community Association, was disappointed in Sasaki’s performance. “They have a world class reputation,” he said, “but this was not a world-class presentation.” He was harshly critical of the selection process, labeling it “exclusive” and “closed.”
Christine Pace ’01 said, “I wonder if community members have called Sasaki unprofessional because they did not present any hard evidence to support their preference of the Walden site. I am not in a position to doubt that careful research went into their decision, but the audience last night didn’t really get to see the results of that research. For example, it would have been enlightening and reassuring to see that a thorough ecosystem analysis had been performed on the site, complete with a detailed vegetation, topographic, and soils survey. I think that audience members might also have been more trusting of the Sasaki preference for the Walden site if they had been shown data from a complex study of traffic in that area of campus.”
Many in the audience felt slighted by both Sasaki’s and the college’s actions. While Sasaki spoke with the town manager and a few others in a closed meeting, Lumelsky saw that as “a pretty narrow segment of town officials, let alone the town citizens. They’ve had meetings at zero and eighty percent,” he said, referring to Resnick’s phrase. “In the process of getting public opinion, that’s not optimal.”
Several members of the audience looked forward to more citizen involvement. “I would hope,” Bubriski said, “that between the eighty and 100 percent points you will gain input from more townspeople, faculty members, and so on.”
Payne stressed that in this case, patience is a virtue. “I personally still see great strengths to the Walden Street location, but I await Sasaki’s final conclusions. I also have great confidence that we can address many of the concerns expressed at the meeting.
Lumelsky, too, vowed to be “more pro-active.”
“Over the next few months, we’ll hold forums, maybe some meetings, whatever we can to continue this process,” he said. “The trustees of this college really need to rethink the way they deal with this issue.”