Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Cusack Plan Changes, But Where Are the Millions Coming From?

I attended the City’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) hearing on the Cusack plan for renovation and modification of The Senator yesterday afternoon.

I’m pleased to say that the meeting went quite well, from the perspective of Friends of The Senator.

Chief among our concerns going into the meeting was that The Senator building needs a thorough top-to-bottom inspection by objective experts. We recommended the inspection tour should be led by former owner Tom Kiefaber, who knows how to get into all the crawl spaces and other hidden places in the building’s infrastructure. The CHAP board agreed with us on both of these points.

I’m also delighted to report that the severely flawed initial plan that was submitted during the RFP process has been significantly revised, and the original Outer Lobby walls and Ladies’ Lounge/Restroom suite are no longer in danger.

The new design would now take a portion of the Men’s lounge for the proposed crepe shop, but not the whole thing. Still, this was a concern that we had, and which the CHAP board shared, as that space is protected by CHAP’s interior landmark designation.

The result of the meeting was that CHAP shared many of our remaining concerns with the design, and instructed the Cusacks to move ahead with refining their plans, with special instructions to give further thought to their design for the crepe shop and how it impacts the Men’s lounge, get the inspections done, and also to give some further thought to their plan to extend the front of The Senator’s north addition (the former dry cleaner’s) for a Tapas restaurant. As proposed, the Tapas restaurant would impact some of the sidewalk blocks and possibly change the lines of the front of the building in an undesirable way.

That was all very positive, and I thank the CHAP commissioners for their thoughtful consideration of these matters.

The new plan does raise some questions, however, that were outside the scope of the meeting. I don’t know when there will be a public forum to get these questions answered, so I’m going to raise these issues now.

While some were quick to praise the Cusack team for “saving” the Outer Lobby walls and Ladies Lounge, I feel it should be noted that the original proposal was so far out of the bounds of what most preservationists would consider reasonable, that it should never have been proposed in the first place. In fact, the real reason the plan has changed is apparently because they discovered it would not be eligible for state historic tax credits. It’s important to keep in mind, I think, that after proposing such an egregiously off-base plan, the Cusack team needs to be watched carefully as they proceed. The disastrous original proposal makes their sensibilities with regard to the building’s design somewhat suspect.

The development team was quick to try to link the “saving” of the Ladies room with an addition they now want to fast track to the South of the original building, which is proposed to contain a new 120 seat screening room. They say they would put an additional bathroom in the addition, and that this is required to meet code.

My understanding, however, is that there is no real link between the preservation of the Ladies room and the addition, since they are planning to reduce the number of seats in the original auditorium, and the ADA rules are quite flexible for historic buildings. In other words, they never needed to tear out the Ladies room to "meet code," nor do they now have to build this addition to meet code.

My guess is the real reason for the sudden urgency of the new theatre addition, which was proposed as an “option” in the original RFP, but one that was not budgeted, is because they’ve realized that FOTS has been right all along, and that they need a move-over house. (In fact, I suspect they may need more than one additional screening room, even to make their plan marginally viable.)

All of this brings up major budgetary questions. The original proposed funding sources and amounts have not changed, but the plan just got much more expensive – probably millions more expensive. Where are those millions coming from?

Tom Kiefaber had various plans over the years to add new screening rooms on the south side of the building before, and Tom tells me that the projected costs for all of those plans ran into the millions, and that was years ago. The prohibitive costs are largely due to the major excavation required, because of the topography. I may be missing something, but I don’t see how a somewhat similar addition in the same space just got a whole lot cheaper than the thoughtful plans that Tom commissioned from respected architectural firms.

Additionally, when Tom tried to expand the theatre in the same space, he ran into all kinds of opposition from neighboring residents. While some neighborhood residents showed up yesterday to give their approval to Buzz’s new plan, I suspect that opposition of some sort may arise from other neighbors, once the plan is discussed in more detail.

Not only is the “optional” new theatre now a priority for the Cusack team, but now they’ve specified that they will try to restore original paneling, murals, and put in a new chandelier, which we’re hoping will be a reproduction of the original “mother ship” chandelier. They had not previously stated these restoration goals for the theatre. I would love to see all of this happen, but it’s very costly, if done right.

So, I just have to ask again, where are the millions coming from? Will additional taxpayer funds be required, beyond the nearly 1 million already spent, the $700K already being sought from city taxpayers, and the $100K being sought from state taxpayers?

The taxpayers need these questions answered, before the plan proceeds too much farther.

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