Theater and dance complex site changed

The turbulent history of the theater and dance complex took a dramatic turn on Tuesday, Oct. 10 when Morton Owen Schapiro, president of the College, announced that Williams has abandoned plans to construct the new facility at the corner of Spring and Walden Streets.

Instead, Schapiro said, the College will shift its focus to the area surrounding Adams Memorial Theater.

Although the Spring Street site had drawn considerable opposition from Williamstown residents, Schapiro said his decision was primarily a response to internal concerns. The first of these was that the Spring Street conception of the complex did not fit within the context of the College’s long-term goals.

“The planning for theater and dance needs to be part of the strategic planning process we have begun as a College,” Schapiro wrote in his letter informing the Williams community of his decision.

This strategic planning process is already underway, Schapiro said, and “it seemed really unfortunate to be putting in spaces not coordinated with the needs of the rest of the campus.”

Schapiro was also concerned because the Spring Street plan did not have the wholehearted support of the college community. Specifically, many faculty members were concerned that the standard faculty and student committees had not been involved in the project’s planning – and that as a result, the project was less than optimal.

“For whatever reason, this plan was having people look back, at the process that gave birth to this plan, and not forward,” Schapiro said. “I’m trying to get the whole community involved in moving forward together.

“Not to fight old battles, but to find new solutions – that made a lot of sense to me.”

Faculty response

The Williams community has greeted President Schapiro’s decision with overwhelming support. Faculty, in particular, are convinced that redirecting the project through the standard planning process will resolve many of the problems that have plagued it so far.

“President Schapiro is applauded for taking a rather courageous step,” said Hank Art, a professor of biology. “He’s saying, let’s go back and do the planning before we commit ourselves to bricks and mortar.”

Michael Lewis, a professor of art history who had been a vocal critic of the Spring Street site, was also pleased to hear about Schapiro’s choice. “I opposed the performing arts building – site, program, concept and all – because I thought the process was exactly backwards [in that] the selection of the site came first. The intention was not to fill a legitimate college need but to build a monument.”

Lewis was especially excited by Schapiro’s willingness to go back and correct this fundamental problem. “President Schapiro’s bold action was a sign of inspired leadership at the start of his term,” he said.

Roger Bolton, a professor of economics, said he “welcomed [Schapiro’s] decision with great relief and joy. The Spring Street location was looking to be inordinately costly, in terms of dollars, goodwill and administrative energy,” he explained. “We owe President Schapiro much for his resolve in a difficult situation.”

Alumnus Herbert Allen ’62, whose $20 million donation in 1998 will fund the complex’s construction, was “excited” about the decision, college officials said.

“My interest is not the location of this facility, but its existence,” Allen said. “I have never been particularly concerned where the facility is. The students need something like this, and it should have been built before now.

“It seems as if President Schapiro has everyone driving in the same direction,” he said of the recent decision. “That’s very constructive…but if they can’t come to a quick decision, I’d appreciate it if they’d let me know. Three years is a long time to complete a process. As a donor, it’s impossible to keep the money out there too long,” he added.

Allen said he did not know what the College’s timetable was in completing the project, but would be “very interested” in finding out. Schapiro said he understood Allen’s impatience. “He gave us this money because he loves Williams students, and he believes strongly in theater and dance. But he thought we’d be breaking ground in September 1999, and here it is, October 2000,” he said. “He’s excited about the mission, but skeptical about our ability to pull it off.”

Community reaction

Williamstown residents have also greeted Schapiro’s decision with excitement and relief. Many had been concerned that the construction of such a large facility on Spring Street would have had a negative impact on the area’s small-town feel, as well as creating traffic and environmental problems.

Zane Lumelsky, a town resident and co-founder of the Williamstown Community Association, a group formed to oppose the Spring Street site, announced that he was “very pleased” with Schapiro’s decision to locate the new complex near Adams Memorial Theater.

“We congratulate President Schapiro on his decision to build at a site which from the town’s point of view has a much less negative impact,” he said.

“At the same time, we hope that this is an indication that the College is going to change how they work with the town on projects in the future.”

Schapiro was excited that town residents supported his decision, but emphasized that town opposition played only a minor role in his choice. “Of course we don’t want to aggravate people in the community for no reason,” he said, “but you can’t let external forces drive what you’re doing internally.”

Helen Ouellette, vice president for the administration, agreed. “We do listen to what people in the town say, a lot more than they are aware of. But the College will always do everything within our legal rights to do on our property that best fulfills our mission. If we had continued to think that our mission was best fulfilled by building there, we would have done it.”

She added, however, that she does foresee a more collaborative relationship between the College and the town in the future. “I think it would be great to get some sort of dialogue going between college students and staff, and town residents and officials,” she said.

Although the College is withdrawing from the Spring Street site for now, the land, part of which it purchased from the American Legion in the spring (because it anticipated using the site for the new facility), will remain in the College’s possession. The College will carry through on its commitment to build a new home for the American Legion on the site currently occupied by Robin’s Restaurant.

“Someday we’re going to need that American Legion site for something,” Ouellette said. “If we leave the Legion there, or build a new one right next to it, we’re creating another problem for ourselves down the road.”

Cost cutting?

Despite forecasts that the costs of building the Spring Street complex were spiraling, Schapiro maintained that financial considerations played no role in his decision. Whatever the College decides to do instead, he noted, will also be expensive.

“I’m not doing this to save money,” Schapiro emphasized. “We are an institution with tremendous resources. When we build buildings, we build them for 100 years – no one remembers how much we spent on the original Thompson laboratories, or on Baxter in 1953, or even the science center just a few years ago. I’m much less worried about cost than I am about bang for the buck.”

He continued, “We have the luxury of looking long-term, not saving every dime. I think we can do something wonderful near AMT. It’ll cost a lot of money, but that’s why you have campaigns, and alumni stepping forward like Herb Allen has done.”

Schapiro was also unfazed about the time and money already invested in the now-abandoned Spring Street site. “Every day you wake up and say, what are the expected benefits and what are the expected costs? You don’t look back at money already spent. Sunk costs are already sunk. The costs of going forward – in money, time, dividing our community internally and dividing us with the town – were higher than the benefits.”

The complex’s future

The next step in planning process will be what Ouellette describes as “regrouping.” College officials, in conjunction with student-faculty committees such as the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), the Faculty Steering Committee and the theater and dance departments, will stand back and reevaluate many of the premises driving the original conception of the new complex.

Schapiro is confident that the College community will reaffirm the need for new theater and dance facilities.

“Broad agreement exists that the performing arts play an essential role at Williams and that they high caliber of our theater and dance programs warrants investment in their facilities,” he wrote in the letter to the Williams community.

He explained later, “Our niche in the market wants to attract students with all kinds of talent. We’ve made a big statement about science, we regularly do with athletics, and we need to here [with theater and dance] as well.”

Given the consensus that filling the needs of theater and dance is an extremely high priority for the College, Schapiro and Ouellette said that officials and committees will try to move forward as quickly as possible in working out the details.

Ouellette emphasized that they will not be starting from scratch. “A lot of time-consuming work for designing a building is determining the programming – what our needs are, what we want this building to do for us. A lot of that programming has already been done, and won’t need to be done again.”

Unlike the building as conceived for the base of Spring Street, however, Schapiro hopes that whatever is built near AMT will also include some student space. “I don’t want to have this facility there all locked up whenever there isn’t a performance going on,” he said. “This isn’t going to replace Baxter, but I think we can create a space that meets a lot of different needs.”

Beyond these broad considerations, the College knows little about the final form the complex will take. Current options include renovating AMT – which is on the Capital Plan to renovated soon anyway, building an addition to AMT, or building a separate structure on a site in the vicinity of AMT, such as the “Greylock swamp” behind the Greylock quad.

Whatever the College decides, Schapiro will be urging it towards completion as quickly as possible.

“We don’t have the luxury of time,” he warned. “The clock is ticking and we’ve fallen behind in terms of infrastructure.”

“I’ve never been described as patient,” he added, “Not when your students come here to get a world-class education and are impeded because of the lack of appropriate facilities. Every day we delay putting in these spaces is another day lost.”