Site for theater and dance center selected

President of the College Harry C. Payne announced last Tuesday that the proposed theatre and dance complex will be built on a parcel of land off Walden and Spring streets. The College reached its decision after reviewing a March 25 report by Watertown-based planning and design firm Sasaki & Associates.

Herbert A. Allen ’62, has specified a $20 million donation for the construction of the complex. Much conflict has surrounded the selection of a site for the proposed building, which will have a footprint of approximately 50,000 square feet. The Sasaki site evaluation study narrowed options to the proposed site, and one adjacent to the Adams Memorial Theatre, just north of the Greylock quadrangle.

Local residents have strongly criticized construction at the Walden street site for its potential to disturb surrounding neighborhoods, but the site study found the Walden street site preferable for reasons such as pedestrian traffic, enhancement of the town center and the location of the building’s entrance.

Payne said that the college considered discussions with designers during the architect selection process as part of the site selection process. All eight architects shown potential sites said that they believed the Walden street site is the most promising.

Payne commented that the architect selected for the project, William Rawn, “is passionate about the potential for a carefully scaled facility on this site to strengthen the life of the campus and of Spring Street, adding energy to the center of town. He has shown in his previous work great thoughtfulness and sensitivity to issues of siting and of neighborhoods – sensibilities that he knows are important to this project as well.”

Before concluding that the Walden street site is the “most appropriate,” Sasaki considered comments from local residents and town officials, examined the potential of other sites on campus, and projected pedestrian and vehicular traffic patterns.

Perceived advantages of the Walden street site over the Greylock street site were many. While parking for the Greylock site would conflict with the Adams Memorial Theater, according to the report, parking facilities on Walden street would “increase the parking supply available to commercial activities along Spring Street.” Also, while the Greylock site would add little to the character of the campus, a complex on Walden street would “strengthen and provide a southern terminus to the pedestrian spine of campus” while helping “the town achieve its objectives as they relate to the Spring Street Town Center.”

According to the report, the challenges posed by the selected site, including wetlands and traffic, can be resolved in the design phase.

“The design process, which had begun its preliminary phase, can now proceed in earnest,” Payne commented. “It will do so in consultation not only with the main users of the building, but with the wider campus and local community.”

“The project is now at an exciting phase. With a strong site decided on and a dynamic architect on board, all who are interested in this project can now work to make it as successful as possible for our theatre and dance programs, the whole college, and the local community.”

“It is very important as we move toward formal programming and design to have the site settled,” said Payne.

“Sasaki’s report took a zero-based look at the campus, and I’m glad their wisdom coincides with ours. We learned some things about the site and its challenges,” he said.

The next step in the development process is to orient the building in relation to the street.

Payne said, “We’ll be doing testing of the relationships of the building to the street. It’s wide open for the architect to determine how the building will relate to Spring and Walden Streets. The report has done the work we asked for, now the challenging work is to refine the elements of the program and move to starting to draw the pictures.”

“If all goes well, and there may certainly be many hurdles, it’s quite possible ground could be broken in summer 2000. We will need to coordinate the timing of construction with the reconstruction of Spring and Latham streets, and we’ll collaborate with the town.”

Payne is not yet certain of the cost of the project, which will include retail space and parking facilities. “It is our intention to build a building roughly at the scale of the gift,” said Payne, adding that the cost will become clearer once the plans are more final.

Allen, who has often been vocal about his dislike of recent campus architecture, will be closely involved in the design process. He wants a design that is modern, yet “evocative of a New England village.”

Allen called the Walden street site “an obvious choice.

“I just hope now the school and the architect can put something together that is not intrusive to the neighborhood and that everybody’ll be proud of.

“What’s more important than moving fast from now on is getting it right,” he added. “It’ll be better than what’s been built for 30 years.”

Boston-based architect William Rawn has designed other performing arts buildings such as the Seiji Osawa Hall at Tanglewood, the Richard W. Sorenson Center at Babson College and the Forrestal-Bowld Music Building at Phillips Exeter Academy. President Payne calls the highly acclaimed Seiji Osawa Hall a “world class building.”

“Bill Rawn seems to understand both the town and the area,” said Allen. “He was a good choice. He cares about the people in the community.”

Despite Payne’s and Allen’s enthusiasm, the Sasaki report does not seem to have changed the minds of objectors. A spokesman for the Williamstown Community Association (WCA) said the Sasaki report is “no different from their presentation three months ago. The conclusion of this report is no surprise. What our group will be doing is addressing the specifics of the report. We question some of the assumptions, some of the methodology, and we do question some of the conclusions.”

The WCA has taken action supporting a proposed bylaw that would eliminate the exemption on building height currently enjoyed by educational and religious institutions in Williamstown. The proposed bylaw has been placed on the annual town meeting warrant by the Selectmen who also voted 2-2 not to take a stand on the issue.

Along with the height of the building, local residents have also expressed concerns relating to noise, traffic, and the reduction of the value of surrounding residential properties. Some have protested the college’s expansion into residential areas, citing the fact that with each piece of property the college takes off the market, the proportion of taxes each resident has to pay rises.

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