Ken Shelin: Move into the future with a new performing arts center in Sarasota

Photo of former Sarasota city commissioner Ken Shelin.

Originally published by Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Common sense and responsible fiscal management mandate the creation of a new performing arts hall in the city of Sarasota. That doesn’t mean that the current hall will be demolished, but it is reaching the end of its designed life span. Major considerations and potential new uses need to be carefully considered because changes will need to be made if we decide to keep it. 

Life and structures are dynamic. Decisions about them are always based on a risk/benefit ratio. Van Wezel has two major risks associated with its continued use. First, is the reality of the competitive business factors affecting its fiscal viability. Second, is the reality of climate change and the relentless sea level rise that threatens the building. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study in 2017 predicted a sea level rise of 14-18 inches by 2050 at the Van Wezel location.

New arts halls are being constructed all over the country, including Florida. These halls generally contain multiple performing spaces for flexibility and larger seating capacity because of the technical demands and costs of touring shows. As any theatrical booking agent will tell you, the greatest number of seats and the largest amount of money generated at a given location will always win out in the competition for shows.

With only 1,700 seats, Van Wezel often loses business to larger halls elsewhere. We need 2,400 to 2,500 seats to be competitive. Remodeling the Van Wezel to add 600 seats would substantially exceed the costs permitted by FEMA rules in flood zones. Adding more seats would require changes to the building’s exterior walls and roof height that would significantly change the appearance of the building design. The building was not designed to allow for upward or outward expansion. 

The existing building has no flood barriers or other means of resisting flooding. A dike of 10 to 15 feet along the bay would be needed to anticipate flood surges like the one in Fort Myers during Hurricane Ian. Flood gates would be needed at each building opening where flooding could be expected. In fact, there is no documentation that the building meets building codes in effect at the time of construction and no upgrades have occurred to bring it up to existing codes for a coastal flood zone.

If the city decided to expand the building beyond what is allowed by FEMA rules, the entire building would have to be brought up to current codes. Then, of course, there would be the question of whether the city could afford or even find insurance for the rebuilt structure because of its location. But, more to the point, floodproofing systems come with serious issues which may limit the building’s functionality. 

Floors in the building are poured at grade and would need to be stabilized to resist uplift pressure from groundwater rise. One of the defects of the study was that it included only building inspection of existing finishes. The interior condition of walls and floors is unknown, but there are clues.

Moisture from groundwater is wicking up in Van Wezel’s basement areas, softening the floors so that new coverings are installed every two years to prevent injuries. Flooding has occurred in the Founders Lounge, which is below grade level. Flooding has occurred in elevator shafts. The sewage lift station between the hall and the bay has flooded and would be swamped by a storm surge.

There are other issues like the large number of leaks in the HVAC system which prevent it from operating at full capacity; the limited number of disabled-accessible areas of the auditorium; the continental seating arrangement which makes patrons climb past many people to reach their seats and slows exits; the awkward auditorium design adversely affecting lighting and sound operational issues for some shows; and more. 

Returning to the risk/benefit ratio decision model: Should we remodel and enlarge Van Wezel and incur the major expenses related to floodproofing, elimination of design defects and other necessary improvements, with a result that looks nothing like Van Wezel’s original design and may not overcome the risks of being in a flood zone? Or should we make our major arts industry competitive and safe from the structural and flooding risks associated with our current building? 

For me, the decision is clear. As a public asset, we need a new, safer, more competitive and floodproof building designed to maintain Sarasota’s status as the Cultural Capital of Florida! 

Ken Shelin is a former Sarasota city commissioner.

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