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New arts center in Willoughby district's future plans

Posted: March 25, 2013 - 12:07am

While a towering nearby crane did its work last week to bring the State Library, Archives and Museum building to life, another piece of the Willoughby District’s civic infrastructure-in-development was being discussed.

Representatives of the driving force behind the Willoughby Arts Complex (WAC for short) described the potential transformation of the parking lot between the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and Centennial Hall.

Nancy DeCherney of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council (JAHC) and Art Rotch of Perseverance Theatre stepped around patches of slippery slush under cold, sunny skies as they described a future theater complex with space for shops and/or a restaurant, and room for rental housing units.

What last week was wind-whipped ice and asphalt may become that $20 million complex dedicated to live performances. One theater, designed and operated by Perseverance, would hold up to around 200 people, while the larger one designed and operated by JAHC could seat around 300.

Earlier plans called for a single 500-seat venue.

The theater and the Arts and Humanities Council joined together last December in a “pARTnership” to raise money for and design what would be a public/private partnership to build a privately-managed facility on land leased from the borough.

While Perseverance Theatre’s building in Douglas is a beloved part of the community, Executive and Artistic Director Rotch said it has also outlived its functionality. “It needs to be replaced.”

The pair discussed venue sizes in Juneau, noting that there is a steep drop-off in available seats after just a couple of facilities are reserved for functions.

“What we’ll offer is another theater that is different and offers more options,” said Rotch, whose experience working in the arts and cultural community here spans 25 years.

“I think it will add a great deal to what we can do,” said DeCherney.

While all the funding isn’t set — in fact serious nuts and bolts fundraising will have to wait for an upcoming vote of the City and Borough of Borough Assembly giving the group “site control” — the project is on the list to be partially funded as part of the city’s recently approved 1 Percent Sales Tax project list.

The project could cost between $15 and $22 million, according to estimates.

The new theater is a project of the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and Perseverance and is an expansion of the JACC. Together with the SLAM project and the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Walter Soboleff Center, the downtown Juneau area is set to have a new cultural campus should the theater complex be built as well.

One frequent question theater backers get is about a topic that haunts the district — parking. While huge lots exist, the Centennial Hall area fills up fast. The theater would take out a swath of existing parking.

“This is bad parking,” DeCherney said, noting that it is a poorly-designed parking area.

She and Rotch said parking issues will be addressed as the project gets further down the road. Aside from potentially bringing-in more motorists with events, the proposed complex includes housing.

DeCherney and Rotch addressed the parking issue in a Feb. 15 letter to the Assembly: “We believe that the design of the building is not yet sufficiently developed to answer definitively how much parking will be required because we first need to know how many seats will be in the theatres, how large might a restaurant on site be, and how many units of housing might be included.” They vowed to work toward a solution that complies with the city’s needs and rules.

Plans drawn up by MRV Architects of Juneau are conceptual, and as well as two theaters, rehearsal spaces and a recording studio, the plans include up to 15 one- and two-bedroom apartments units on the third and fourth floors. Costume and storage rooms and kitchen space are also in the conceptual designs.

The facility’s price tag drops to between $13 and $16 million without housing as a component.

A resolution to support the center’s construction and keep the land committed to that project for up to five years received overwhelming support in the Assembly’s Finance Committee earlier this month. The measure passed 8-1, opposed by Assembly member Randy Wanakmaker. Wanamaker said the city Master Plan should be updated before land is committed, and he wanted more information on the plans for housing there.

Assembly member Carlton Smith moved the motion that the words “site control” be included in the resolution at the request of DeCherney and Rotch.

The city’s resolution of support could go before the Assembly again in early April.

• Contact Managing Editor John R. Moses at 523-2265 or at john.moses@juneauempire.com.

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