Again, Savannah Ambitions is advising the citizens and leadership of Savannah to turn another instance of misguided decision making (to say the least) into a ‘reasonably’ cost effective public asset. This has been done by greatly increasing the public benefits on the one hand and greatly reducing the costs to tax payers on the other.
Strike One: A Cause Unfounded
From the view point of one who was raised and lived most of his life in Atlanta, the purported need for ‘amateur’ performing and visual arts space does not warrant the spending of tens of millions of tax dollars. Amateur theater groups typically source their own venues; these exists all over Atlanta.
For a city the size of Savannah to spend such a large sum of the public purse on a sophisticated theater space for amateur groups is quite unique, and one must question either the city’s priorities or suppose other motivations.
The Bureau of Cultural Affairs has repeatedly claimed that Savannah has a dire need for this new construction. Its central arguments are that the Bureau’s current ‘black box’ theater space cannot alone keep up with the demand from small theater groups in Savannah, or that larger groups are crowded out of the larger private venues or that the city should provide those larger groups with space at virtually no costs, a questionable proposition.
As to the purported ‘overwhelming demand’, the theater on Henry Street is used on average a mere 2 or 3 times a month; that from a source within the bureau. And as to the, heretofore unquestioned, pronouncement from the head of the bureau that theater space is at capacity in Savannah, a look at the schedules of city venues shows that many are not even at a 10% usage.
Considering the magnitude of money being thrown at this project, the public’s understanding of its purpose is grossly inadequate. This confusion can be seen in an early 2016 local TV news report, in which the reporters compared the background of the CAC’s inception with the make-over of Charleston’s Gaillard Theater, in a way that made them seem equal in their roles.
The newly reopened Gaillard is closer in size to the Mercer Theater, with a 1,800 seat capacity and intended for hosting professional performances, and now fashioned as an elegant opera house.
A secondary rationale for this facility hardly carries any credibility at all . . . a space to ‘learn’ art? The existing CAC on Henry St. can and does serve this function perfectly well, but if looking for a change of scenery, there are any number of well suited and well located spaces to be had, none of which cost $20+ million.
Strike Two: This Is Not 1972
While Charleston is ridding itself of past architectural errors, Savannah is going in the opposite direction.
Charleston made this design choice for the new Gaillard . . .
Savannah has chosen this . . .
Strike Three: Worst Location Ever
The very site selected by the city indicates no regard for the public functions it is suppose to be serving. In theory this facility is to replace the existing Henry Street facility as a place for the Savannah public (i.e. local citizens) to simply enjoy, learn and perform artistic endeavors, chiefly via art classes.
But yet, the site chosen for its placement is a large parcel of land at a high profile intersection, within the city’s most promising commercial corridor, and surrounded by hotels filled with non-Savannah’ns. It could hardly be put in a more unfriendly location to serve as a local amateur art venue.
The only justification for the site selection is its close proximity to the nearby CAT station. Yet, the negatives of putting this facility on a large lot in the historic district (up town), and astride one of the city’s chief (or potentially chief) commercial thoroughfares, totally outweigh that one positive feature.
The city should be seeking commercial activity in that area, not another sparsely used government building. The so called ‘center’ will produce virtually no activity during the day and only rarely, and very little, at night. It would become another barren, pedestrian unfriendly and blighted block like the civic center and county courthouse facility.
Parking? I guess they figure if you’re having to use a publicly funded space for your artistic needs you don’t have an automobile. Other than perhaps for handicapped drivers, there is no vehicle parking in the city’s ‘arts center’ plan. Walk from the bus station, perhaps carrying your art supplies, or pay garage parking fees (at business and tourist rates) or compete for street parking in the surrounding congested area.
And it keeps getting worse . . . The Oglethorpe and MLK location should have a considerable commercial potential, thus in taking the parcel out of the tax base, it just perpetually adds to the high costs of this project.
Do these rather obvious flaws indicate there being an original intent of supporting and encouraging amateur art development in the city?
Still think this is smart, or even responsible, city planning?
And, how can the city lobby, even mandate, the private sector add grace and architectural detail to new construction while it willfully selects and funds construction of buildings that would be ugly even by Atlanta’s standards. Clearly, this is a $25 million architectural mistake to be long bemoaned by coming generations.
Quite fortunately for Savannah, the site may have been prepped, but the concrete has not been poured and the steel has not been erected. But, YOU can’t wait for others to do the work of speaking up.
A New Direction
Savannah has a considerable inventory of buildings, even many commercial, industrial, and institutional structures, that are either vacant or underutilized. In many instances, if not most, these present great opportunities when public needs arise requiring physical facilities.
Indeed, many of those structures have been the subject of long standing discussions, even some hand wringing as several of them are considered either eye sores or magnets for criminal activity.
If the city’s true goal was to provide a public venue for amateur theater groups, it needn’t have looked any farther than across the street from its existing ‘black box’ theater and Cultural Affairs Office at Henry Street and Bull.
The Old Sears building, right there on Bull Street, in the midst of a thickly settled residential area, and surrounded by eateries frequented by real Savannah’ns. It is vastly better located compared to the Oglethorpe/MLK site, and physically viable for being repurposed (aka adaptive reuse) to meet the functions ‘purportedly’ being sought by the initial CAC proposal.
Though likely considered by most in the city to be another candidate for elimination, the old retail store can now be reincarnated as a visually vibrant contribution to the neighborhood. A second look at the Old Lady, and we can see the possibilities.
Viewed from Bull Street, one can see traces of art-deco elements and can get a better appreciation of the building thought by most to be very industrial looking. Once noticed, it is easy to envision a theater marquee with additional highlights like neon back lighting above the sidewalk canopies. Some door and window alterations on the first level could easily be had to create for Savannah an awesome art-deco theater facade in the Yellow Brick Village, on Forsyth Park’s southern edge.
The Old Sears building has a shell, size and profile perfectly suited to the stated needs of the Community Theater/Cultural Arts Center. Added to that perfection is a parking lot of considerable size, as well. Also adding to that perfection is the location, far superior to that chosen by the city, given the local purpose of the facility. The land and building can be acquired for less than what the city paid for the lot at Oglethorpe and King.
As seen in the photo above, a third level is situated on the building’s east end (with a smaller fourth level above it). The third level stretches the width of the building, and is virtually the perfect size and position to surround the upper portion of the stage where rigging capability is needed.
Interior structural additions can be had to open up spaces for the audience box and stage; the width of the building easily permits adding vertical supports for those areas. If warranted and/or desired, a new roof/ceiling can be created over a portion of the audience box for aesthetics and/or functional purposes.
The far east end of the facility is part building and part loading area. Yes, it even comes with a loading dock for groups to easily move in their stage scenery and other equipment.
Below is one example of how the structure’s interior could be configured space wise. Not included here is a rendering of the second floor levels that will exist in the front (west) and back (east) portions of the building.
Compare the above footprint size with this graphic showing the planned footprint of the City’s current building proposal. The red and orange measurement markings were added.
The Sears building option would have second floor space in both the front and rear sections, doubling the square footage for those functional needs. The building also has a basement.
Since speculating on floor plan feasibility (as shown in the above graphic), the Sears’ building floor plan has become available. Outside of the obvious need to open up a portion of the building for the theater, the building’s structural columns, stairways and exterior features fit PERFECTLY with the needs of this use.
And, as if we needed to be blessed with anymore benefits, the Old Sears building is only steps away from the current bureau of cultural affairs building on Henry St. This affords the very practical option of keeping in place the department’s offices, classrooms and its black box theater. A sprucing up of the building (privately owned) could be had to compliment its art-deco sister across the street.
Without having inspected the interior of the old sears building, a good estimate for re-purposing this building for our new use cannot be proffered here with sufficient confidence. Requests are in to get some pro-bono preliminary assessments on this project; help would be appreciated . . . contact email@example.com.
It would greatly surprise me, however, if this could not be had at a cost that would produce a multi-million dollars savings over the city’s existing plan, while producing a far better result, in virtually every functional and aesthetic way, including tax payer sustainability.
Added Value: The Florence Martus Cinema
SAVANNAH’S REPERTORY FOREIGN FILM CINEMA
This new aesthetic and location increases the value to the community for this public venture. Who doesn’t want to get more for their buck? (the government comes to mind)
Savannah’s dire need of diversifying and growing its economy was the stimulus behind the work which is now found on the Savannah Ambitions (SA) website.
Whenever an opportunity can be found to further that mission, SA promotes it. Not only is this proposal about producing a better outcome for the purported purpose of creating a community ‘arts center’ at savings for the city, it sees the opportunity to tie it in with furthering the economic development mission as well.
Added sophistication in cultural offerings, such as a repertory foreign film venue, can greatly assists Savannah in competing with other (and especially larger) cities for attracting that stripe of the population who often bring with them considerable education, job skills, capital, and business ownership.
The presence of ‘art’ house theaters has lessened significantly since 1990, due to the vast increase in movie viewing options. This doesn’t mean the demand for these films has waned, but it is no longer commercially viable to offer in a brick and mortar theater the consistency and variety known by audiences of the 70’s and 80’s. And yet, for an aspiring city such as Savannah, having a publicly supported venue of this sort can set it apart from other cities and, by so doing, bring economic rewards.
Especially lost in the last 25 years is the option to enjoy a foreign film in a theater. There lies a massive film industry outside of the United States, producing outstanding entertainment in drama, action and comedy. These films are almost always available with the addition of English subtitles.
This venue would be well located for the foreign film consumer market in Savannah, with the bonus of locally patronized eateries nearby. The location is more appealing than the uptown and more touristy surroundings of the Lucas Theater, which has attempted foreign and art house film showings.
The name Florence was chosen, as an homage to Savannah’s Florence Martus, the ‘waving girl’. It would be a fitting moniker for a repertory cinema hosting foreign films.
As memorialized by a statue on the waterfront, Florence spent decades near the Cockspur Island lighthouse waving to ships and sailors arriving from foreign shores. It is as well likely that she imagined traveling on those ships to see those distant lands and people.
We can continue her tradition by taking up this opportunity. It also gives a bit of depth to the notion of ‘cultural affairs’, as the municipal department involved is dubbed. Instituting a regular foreign film option will greatly contribute to the diversity of the city’s cultural offerings.
A private non-profit can be formed for the operation of this mainstay in the new community arts center. Now this namesake of Florence Martus can forever welcome films from across the world to Savannah.
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