Community Amp dialogues continue, with focus on construction plans

Prior to the season, the Institution announced plans to further engage the Chautauqua community on the Amphitheater project.

It’s working. The community is engaged.

Another full house attended the Institution’s Q-and-A session Friday in the Hall of Christ. Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer George Murphy; Director of Operations and Administrator of Land Use Regulations John Shedd; and consulting engineer Steve Dechert, a vice president of LPCiminelli and the Institution’s construction representative, answered the many questions posed by facilitator Elliot Fishman and members of the large crowd.

As at previous sessions, many participants appeared supportive of the Institution’s plans. Others raised concerns similar to those voiced by the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, which prefers a more limited rehabilitation of the Amp. Members of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, who will ultimately deliberate on the project, were at the meeting as observers.

Fishman said he felt it best to devote the session to questions and answers. He led off with questions about the timeline of the Institution’s project. He said many Chautauquans were clearly concerned about whether the Amp project could be completed in only one off-season.

Dechert said the Institution now sees the project as an 18-month endeavor interrupted by the nine weeks of the 2016 season, with the overarching objective of a certificate of occupancy by the beginning of the 2017 season.

Dechert said the plan is to do as much preliminary work as possible prior to the beginning of the 2016 season. This presumes that the board of trustees approves the project to go to bid at its August meeting and subsequently authorizes the administration to award contracts in November. Construction planners would like to bid out 16 to 18 subcontractor packages in September to keep the process moving.

Work that could be completed prior to next summer’s season would include preparatory site work; concrete and steel fabrication; mechanical, electrical and plumbing prep work, and staging of some materials on Institution property across Route 394, Dechert said. He said securing insurance for the work would be a prerequisite to starting.

More specifically, Dechert said, major concrete forms such as structural caissons and cylindrical columns to hold up the Amp’s roof could be prefabricated.

Emphasizing that there is not a “done deal” regarding the Amp design, hedd told the audience that everyone involved in the project feels “under the gun” in trying to develop a coherent construction schedule based upon board of trustees approval that has not yet been granted.

“We’re trying to keep things fluid, and to be ready if we get the green light from the board, while at the same responding to concerns on timing and other issues,” Shedd said. Q-and-A summaries follow below:

What if the Amp is not ready by the beginning of the 2017 season? 

Shedd said if the Institution cannot secure a certificate of occupancy in time, “We’re already looking at ways we can manage the 2017 season in alternative venues. We don’t want that to happen, but we want to be ready for all eventualities.”

How will the Institution communicate with the community during the project? 

Murphy said information would be available to property owners and especially those whose homes line the routes for construction vehicles onto and off the grounds. He said the Institution may install a camera on the Amp construction site, and will provide biweekly email information bulletins. Organizing webinars is a possibility.

The side promenades are much narrower in the prospective new Amp. This could reduce the community feeling about the site. 

Shedd said bowl safety and accessibility are key issues, and while the side promenades would be narrower, the area to the west of the Amp would be greatly expanded and would afford a gathering place for Chautauquans.

The expanded back-of-house may disrupt traffic flow around the Athenaeum Hotel entrance, and there may be safety concerns. And what about the red bridge behind the back of the Amp?

Shedd acknowledged that safety and accessibility are paramount project goals, and said altering but retaining the Peters Bridge was still on the table, either as a drawbridge or a structure with a sharper angle. A pathway leading pedestrians through the ravine behind the Amp is also being planned.  He said traffic flow would be carefully monitored to ensure all safety considerations are met.

The bowl floor would be lowered by 7 feet, and the orchestra pit prospectively lowered by another 7 feet below that. What about sightlines for the choir to follow its director and for the audience to see the orchestra? 

Shedd said studies had shown that the sightlines would be adequate. Murphy urged the audience to examine new images addressing this issue. They are now displayed in the Smith Memorial library.

How will waste be removed from the site? 

Dechert said, “Deconstruction material will be loaded onto trucks and removed via South Lake Drive through the Bryant Gate. We will do what we can to provide noise abatement throughout the project.” Shedd said the Institution is seeking an environment-friendly LEED certification for the project, and will recycle materials from the current Amp where possible. Dechert added that plaques and other memorials would be preserved.

What measures will be taken to preserve the access roads? 

Dechert said the roads will be tested by vibration monitoring systems and other methods this fall and next spring. They will be repaired and repaved as needed after the project is completed.

What about ground water around the Amp? 

Shedd said site prep work should reveal what measures would be needed for water abatement. But he anticipated in any case that sub-surface pipes would be installed to re-route water around the Amp. The new elevator and orchestra pits would be thoroughly waterproofed.

Some have calculated that we have eight sellouts per year now and inter-arts programming represents 5 percent of total Amp programming. Why are capacity and an orchestra pit driving this expensive project? 

Shedd and Murphy reiterated that there were many factors influencing the need for a facility upgrade, safety and accessibility leading among them. But capacity is an issue, too.

“Think about the Ken Burns week last year, where our average audience was 4,400, or our impressive inter-arts productions,” Murphy said. “When it rained for Burns or in any case for inter-arts, the Amp’s capacity dropped to 3,200. And these types of events could become signature events for Chautauqua. We want them to. But we lose over 1,000 seats for them. That doesn’t make sense.”

The committee has partnered with the firm CJS Architects, who have attempted to offer an alternative to the Institution’s plan. How will you engage with them? 

Murphy said elements of the CJS plan had been publicly discussed last week by Executive Project Architect Marty Serena, and the Institution’s historic preservation panel would likely address the CJS plan in its report, which is due shortly. The panel conclusions would be publicly available.

See the Daily for details and schedules as the Institution’s tour, briefing and Q-and-A sessions continue today, Wednesday and Friday.