Amp project dialogue turns heated in Friday session

Chautauquans filled the  Amphitheater on the last day of Ken Burns week during the 2014 season. (File Photo by Rachael Le Goubin)

Chautauquans filled the Amphitheater on the last day of Ken Burns week during the 2014 season. (File Photo by Rachael Le Goubin)

After the moderator had concluded Friday’s raucus two-hour Amphitheater dialogue, an oddly reassuring Chautauqua scene developed. Most of the principals remained and were engaged by members of the full house long after the meeting ended. In the restored calm of the Hall of Christ sanctuary, small groups continued to discuss and debate the pros and cons of the Institution’s ambitious plans for its centerpiece Amphitheater. It was hard to tell if many minds were changed, but civility had returned.

In this fourth Friday public session, the Institution placed before the packed audience John Shedd, director of operations and administrator of Architectural and Land Use Regulations; Marty Serena, executive architect for the project; and Ted Lownie, historic preservation architect based in Buffalo.

They were joined within the first 15 minutes of the meeting by Dirk Schneider of CJS Architects, adviser to the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, who moderator Ric Wanetik called from the crowd to join the other panelists in response to forceful requests from the crowd. Schneider remained for the rest of the session, seated side-by-side with Serena.

Wanetik, president of Institution consultant The Ricochet Group, served as moderator and was assisted by George Murphy, Institution vice president and chief marketing officer, who also responded to questions deemed beyond the purview of the panelists. As has been the case all summer, several members of the Institution’s board of trustees attended as observers.

From the first moments, the meeting turned significantly more rancorous than any of the earlier sessions. Wanetik introduced himself and said the Institution had decided to dedicate the meeting to questions and answers about its Amp plans.

As the program got underway, Serena prepared to offer a brief review of the project’s development. An agitated Chautauquan rose to his feet, shouting that both sides of the question should be heard, and Wanetik called Schneider forward.

A line formed in front of an available microphone almost immediately, and until Wanetik declared two hours later that no more could join due to time constraints, nearly a dozen Chautauquans continued to queue up to replenish the line, express views and ask questions, replacing those who had already taken a turn at the microphone. All but two identified themselves as opposing the Institution’s proposed plans. Unlike previous sessions, Wanetik allowed questioners time to state their personal points of view before querying the panel.

Questioners from the community were joined at one point by Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer, who expressed his frustration at the Institution’s lack of responsiveness to his questions earlier this summer. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Marylynne Pitz was also present, but did not approach the mic.

Serena reminded the crowd he and a substantial team of associates have been engaged by the Institution and working on the Amp project for nearly four years.

“We rolled up our sleeves right from the start, and worked collaboratively with members of the Institution staff, community members and advisory groups to help the Institution develop major goals and objectives for the project,” he said.

Schneider offered intermittent commentary on some of Serena and Shedd’s remarks and in response to questions. The three had met previously to discuss Schneider’s ideas for the project in May at CJS Architects’ Buffalo office.

Though Schneider has only been involved since the end of 2014 as an unpaid adviser to those who oppose the Institution’s proposed plans for the Amp, he and Serena wound up staging a kind of colloquy on the project, finding areas of agreement and dissent. Many of the audience’s questions focused on why the project could not remain a historic rehabilitation of the Amp.

Serena and Shedd reiterated that through the project’s design-development phase last year, historic rehabilitation was the Institution’s plan, focus and intent. Serena said there are four basic components of the Amp: the back-of-house, the bowl, the roof and the Massey Organ chamber.

Project planners understood that if at least two of these components were preserved, the project could remain a historic rehabilitation. Serena said just about everyone has felt from the start that the back-of-house could be replaced with little effect on the Amp’s historic status.

Schneider nodded his assent, though he said the Institution could replace the back-of-house without changing the front.

Similarly, the two architects concurred that the Massey Organ chamber should remain.

“It sometimes seems that the organ chamber is supporting the entire structure,” Schneider said.

Disagreements surfaced over the bowl and the roof. The bowl was the focus of numerous questions from the floor, with some Chautauquans endorsing the current shape and atmosphere while others criticized the bowl’s acoustics and accessibility, especially for those with disabilities.

Lownie said the feel and atmosphere of the Amp are among its defining characteristics and should be part of the historic preservation group’s findings, which will be available soon to the Institution. Shedd said the Institution had some preliminary sections of the group’s report. Should it be finalized in time, the report will be discussed at the July 31 session. Details will be available in the Daily.

Accessibility, and compliance generally with the Americans with Disabilities Act, were a point of contention between Serena and Schneider. Serena said the Institution had been firm from the start on meeting the letter of the ADA, due to the demographics of its population.

“This has not changed,” he said.

He mentioned the 100-plus ADA-compliant seats in the proposed Amp design that could accommodate those with disabilities and a companion.

Schneider did not disavow the importance of the ADA, but said, “Code doesn’t push you into meeting all new-building code regulations.”

There were many further questions about the structure and condition of the bowl and the roof. Shedd referred to consultants’ recommendations that the Amp roof will have to be buttressed this coming off-season in case of heavy snow loads in the winter. Steel X-shaped braces will have to be installed, linking the roof’s vertical support columns.

“We continue to find that there are weak points in the connections between long steel columns and the steel trusses that support the Amp roof,” Serena said. “There is no question that some of the Amp’s steel structure needs reinforcement. And much of the ceiling fabric needs to come out.”

Shedd mentioned many interior vertical support columns have have drifted, some as many as 6 inches, according to Institution analysis over 17 years. The structure above has not moved, meaning the columns are off-plumb.

Shedd was asked why the Institution is keeping the vertical support pillars in the new design.

“When we proposed removing all of them, the study group gasped,” Shedd said. “They felt some columns were key features of the Amp.”

He also said an advisory group had reported that removing all the columns would raise difficult questions as to cost, aesthetics and practicality.

Serena said this was evidence of community input throughout the process.

“We need for the record to be clear,” he said, calling himself and his team “the pencil for the community” through the four-year process so far. “We have done a lot of consultation — I mean, a lot.”

Serena also said his group is responsive to the planning process of the Institution, as the Institution is the client. The Institution’s commitment to ADA, for instance, has significant implications.

He also said his group had considered numerous plans and ideas — some “quite similar to suggestions offered by CJS,” he said.

In response to a query about increased capacity driving the project, Murphy said, “We are not doing this for Friday show nights. We are doing it more for the kinds of signature inter-arts productions which we hope will become a hallmark of Institution programming. Go see Carmina Burana. You’ll see what I mean. Increasing seating capacity for the Friday shows would just be a bonus.”

Several Chautauquans asked why the Institution could not delay implementation of the project further so their concerns could be addressed.

Shedd and Serena seemed content to let the accumulating reports of structural weaknesses in the Amp, their four-year record of engaging the community, and their evolving plan serve as a reply.

There are 2 comments

  1. Aaron Sorensen

    I was at this meeting and contributed to some of the raucous nature of the debate. I felt compelled to insert myself into the conversation because of the lack of transparency into the many closed meetings and privately-held reports concerning the various evaluations of the Amp done by third parties. I feel further withholding from the public of key documents written by third-party experts at this time would be inexcusable given the well-founded concerns of many regarding the Amp-project’s governance.
    Aaron Sorensen
    20 S. Lake

  2. COMRADITY (@comradity)

    “Shedd and Serena seemed content. . . ”

    Well. I expect they were the only two people in the room who were content.

    The people who care about historical preservation were disappointed that the AMP will be demolished, unless the Board intervenes.

    Others wondered why we are tearing down a building and replacing it with something that isn’t better, unless the Board intervenes.

    Shedd and Serena were there because they are paid to be there. Everyone else had one thing in common – they care about Chautauqua and they wish the Board would intervene.

    Sincerely,
    Katherine Warman Kern

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