Civility returned Friday in the Hall of Christ as Chautauquans packed the auditorium to ask questions of and offer opinions on the Amphitheater project to a panel of Institution leaders. The panel included George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer, Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming, and John Shedd, director of operations and administrator of Architectural and Land Use Regulations.
The fifth in a planned series of six Institution-sponsored public dialogue sessions saw the largest crowd and the most public input as dozens of property owners and other Chautauquans rose to speak. This was by design: Institution consultant and meeting facilitator Elliot Fishman announced at the outset that the meeting would consist entirely of the community’s input, with the panel piping up as needed.
To a more conspicuous extent than at previous sessions, opinions expressed by the audience ran the gamut, varying from support to undecided to opposition of the administration’s Amp plans. The board of trustees turned out in force as observers.
At one point, one trustee rose to question whether the rehabilitation versus demolition debate that has dominated discussion of the Amp project this summer represented a false choice. He thought it would be useful to compile a document showing areas of agreement between proponents and opponents of the Institution’s plans as a means of identifying a basis for consensus.
Shedd said the historic preservation committee recommended by the National Park Service’s Bonnie Halda had still not produced a final report, though he expected it shortly.
Fishman announced plans for Institution President Tom Becker to join Halda at this Friday’s public session, which will be held in the Hall of Philosophy to accommodate the expected large crowd. The Aug. 7 meeting is the last Friday session presently scheduled for the 2015 season.
While tempers were held in check on Friday, the audience responded with applause to many of the remarks offered by Chautauquans. Expressions of opinion for the record greatly outnumbered questions for the panel.
Many community members were concerned about personal habits in using the current facility, and how those habits may have to change if the current proposal comes to fruition.
One asked about sight lines into a deeper bowl from the proposed concourse around the perimeter of the building, and how that narrowed space could impede standing and walking. Shedd reported that while the proposed side concourse is narrower, it remains adequate, and that sight lines into the bowl and onto stage will be improved.
Also regarding the deepened seating bowl, the issue of ventilation was important to one community member who said that even the current Amphitheater lacks adequate airflow. Shedd replied that studies show the 1980s bleachers as a major factor in poor ventilation, and eliminating them will help. He said that mechanical ventilation in the proposed new structure would be too expensive.
Another Chautauquan expressed concern over the removal of Peters Bridge, a vital artery for children heading to and from Club that keeps them out of the traffic mix on South Lake Drive.
Several community members criticized the Institution’s communications and community engagement process. One questioned availability of records of the public sessions. Murphy said all meetings had been recorded and would be put on the Institution’s website promptly. The records will also be part of the materials trustees will consider in preparation for their Aug. 29 meeting and expected vote.
Another person expressed possible support for replacement of the Amp, but said the Institution had not made clear in its communications why it is not possible to preserve or rehabilitate the current structure.
A number of Chautauquans indicated support for the project in terms of long-term sustainability and viability for the Institution.
This is about vision, said one, calling shortsighted the notion of patching the current facility rather than seeking a 50- or 100-year solution.
One community member, participating at Chautauqua for the second year, acknowledged the difficulty of change but urged thinking in terms of the future. That sentiment was echoed by another, who said that the future is more important than the structure.
Increasing safety and accessibility, two of the primary goals of any Amp project, were especially important to several who approached the mic. One Chautauquan expressed love for the current structure but said the angle of the descent into the bowl is much too severe. Another observed the frequent falls in the aisles, and said the programmatic content, not the physical building, is most important.
One person questioned whether the need to meet American with Disabilities Act regulations was forcing the project’s leaders to make unwelcome choices. Shedd said that, with the demographics of program attendees, the Institution places the utmost importance on safety accessibility and intends to meet or exceed ADA requirements with the Amp project.
A community member who also works at the Amp daily framed the safety issue in a different way: in terms of the workers and artists who produce and perform in the facility. The new building would be a great improvement, the staffer said, urging Chautauqua’s leaders to consider their investment of human capital in a new Amp.
The issue of community morale and the Institution’s overall governance structure weighed heavily on some minds. One Chautauquan expressed a desire for community healing and called for the project to be deferred for another year to allow a new set of historic-preservation architects to take a fresh look at the project.
Another called the community deeply divided and said that a segment had lost trust in the administration’s transparency and openness, suggesting a good first step would be to open the August board of trustees meeting to the public.
Some Chautauquans expressed frustration at receiving a barrage of emails and mailed letters regarding the Amp and Chautauqua’s governance. One asked for people to consider the tone of their communications, while another said that those demanding transparency from the Institution should not distribute emails and other communications anonymously.
One Chautauquan, a member of the Chautauqua Foundation Board of Directors, contended that the Institution’s governance structure works and is appropriate. The director reported incorporating best practices learned from Chautauqua in work on other boards and for other organizations.
One community member posited that the Amp project construction could overlap with the approved upgrade of the Chautauqua Utility District’s sewage treatment plant, meaning two large capital projects occurring on the grounds at once. Shedd said the Institution was planning for this possibility, including abatement of dust, noise, construction traffic congestion and vibration.
The regular schedule of Amp sessions continues this week, beginning with an Amp tour at 8 a.m. today. A historical and programmatic review is scheduled for 8 a.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Christ. Friday’s Q-and-A session, featuring Becker and Halda, will be held at 8 a.m. in the Hall of Philosophy.