By LISA CAPOBIANCO
The Memorial Boulevard Building Committee is moving forward with design plans for an 800-seat theater at the former Memorial Boulevard School.
During a special meeting held last Tuesday, the committee reviewed new building sketches after requesting architect firm Edwards McCoy Architects to create another design accommodating more theater seating. The committee voted unanimously to direct the architect to continue with the 800-seat theater design so the project’s construction manager can move forward with details on the cost.
Frank Stawski, chairman of the building committee, also recommended the design to include theater seats with wider leg room, which could possibly reduce the number of seats slightly under the 800 mark.
“We’re at a point where our architect needs direction, to settle on a design so that our construction manager can get very detailed pricing,” said Stawski. “That’s very key to this whole operation.”
During the meeting, Kenton McCoy of Edwards McCoy Architects presented the committee with three new building sketches, including one that featured a 900-seat theater and room for a café/bar on the second floor, but did not include a lobby or a coat check-in area.
The second sketch also included a 900-seat theater, but added a lobby, coat check-in area and a will call office for tickets, as well as a bar area on the second floor.
“What this meant was I had to invade into the building because we don’t want to do an addition,” said McCoy.
The third sketch included an 800-seat theater with a lobby, a green room and rehearsal space, as well as two bar areas (one located in the lobby and another one on the second floor).
“It has the full amenity package of lobby, coat room, ticket office, the second floor bar…800 seats and…technical stuff that the theater needs,” said McCoy.
City Councilor Jodi Zils Gagne, who serves on the building committee, said the 800-theater seat schematic fits the project’s needs the best.
“It has the lobby,” said Gagne, adding that the building sketch also conforms with parking better.
Jake Carrier, a member of the committee who also serves on the Board of Finance, agreed.
“It’s got a much nicer lobby with the 800 seats,” said Carrier.
Several weeks ago, the building committee looked into the possibility of reducing more than half of the 900-plus seats in the theater, which many members of the public spoke out against. After listening to the public, the committee requested the architect to create a new design that accommodates a 900-seat theater.
Before McCoy outlined the new seating options, more than a handful of Bristol residents expressed their support again for keeping as much seating as possible in the theater.
Kim Villanti, an active volunteer for the former Memorial Boulevard School Task Force, said she liked the idea of having a bar on both levels of the theater.
“There are some people who may not go upstairs, and you’re doubling that opportunity to make ancillary income,” said Villanti, who served as the former chairperson for the Task Force’s theater subcommittee.
Earlier in the meeting before McCoy presented the new building sketches, Villanti also expressed concern for the possibility of reducing more than half of the theater seats.
“Reducing the size of the theater is a huge mistake,” Villanti told the building committee. “If you speak to people in the theater business, they have to purchase rights for productions, and those rights are based on theater size.”
“You cannot pay the bills with a 400, even 500-seat [theater],” added Debbie Schur.
Andy Adams, another active Bristol volunteer for the Memorial Boulevard project, referenced the Niagara Arts & Cultural Center (NACC)—the largest multi-arts center in up-state New York serving as the home to home to more than 75 artists and arts groups, over 60 artist studios, two galleries, two theaters, a certified sound stage and movie production facility, as well as the Niagara Falls High School alumni center and the NACC Artisan Café & Gift Shop. Niagara also serves as an education center for adults and children while offering room for celebratory and fundraising events, rental space for meetings, small conferences, and parties.
Built in 1924, the classic revival building served as Niagara Falls’s central high school until 2000, when it was replaced by a new high school building, according to NACC’s website. Although expected to be demolished, the building was saved by a grassroots community coalition.
Adams, who spoke with the director at Niagara, said there is a “great comparison” between the Memorial Boulevard Cultural Center project and NACC.
“They charge between $125 and $425 a month, plus a yearly maintenance fee. Their space goes fast, and they have a waiting list,” Adams shared with the committee.
Linda Rich, a lifelong Bristol resident, recognized the committee’s hard work on the project, but added that making the theater smaller is not “future thinking.”
“We want to have the capacity to meet the community needs, and maybe not turn down a bigger opportunity,” said Rich. “I don’t see limiting a seating capacity as being future-oriented.”
“I am not interested in having a smaller seating capacity,” added Bristol resident Tom Doyle.
Built in 1921, the former Memorial Boulevard School initially served as Bristol High School before turning into Memorial Boulevard Middle School. The middle school closed in 2011 when the Board of Education vacated the building and moved to the new K-8 school. The building itself has received Historic Designation.
Building committee members told the public they are listening to their concerns about the theater, but noted some of the limitations involved with the project.
“We also have budget constraints, which we have to work under and other issues related to the building and outside of the building,” said Stawski, adding that the committee also is taking direction from the Memorial Boulevard Cultural Center’s Board of Directors.
“We’re dealing with the entire building, and it has to fit within the budgetary restraints that we’ve been given,” added John Smith, a member of the building committee. “There are a host of issues…the infrastructure, which needs to be upgraded…parking, which has to be accommodated somehow…[and]code issues that have to be dealt with because it’s no longer a school use. We don’t have enough seats in there for handicap accessibility right now.”