Picture this

With the clock ticking on its very existence, Asheville’s Civic Center Task Force staged a Jan. 18 forum to gather public opinion on the timeworn structure’s fate. The eight-member panel, chartered in October, is slated to dissolve next month after presenting a final report to City Council.

Chaired by Council member Jan Davis, the task force includes Mayor Terry Bellamy, former Mayor Charles Worley and representatives of the city’s arts and tourism industries. Buncombe County Commissioner Bill Stanley was the lone task-force member absent from the nearly three-hour meeting.

Identity crisis

The meeting’s centerpiece was a feasibility study by the Washington, D.C., architectural firm Westlake, Reed, Leskosky. Hired by the nonprofit Asheville Center for the Performing Arts, the firm is suggesting adaptive reuse of the 31-year-old Civic Center — essentially gutting the structure but retaining its bones and creating a state-of-the-art performing-arts center in its place. Managing Principal Paul Westlake presented two possible approaches.

Scenario 1 carries a $46.3 million price tag (in 2006 dollars) and calls for converting the existing Civic Center into a 2,400-seat, multipurpose performing-arts center; construction of a separate, 6,200-seat arena on a yet-to-be-determined site would add another $32.4 million to the tab.

The revamped performance space would feature a three-story hall, each story ringed by windowed balconies offering westward views of the Blue Ridge. The area now occupied by the Thomas Wolf Auditorium would become a reception space, and the building would also house media-arts-education facilities and a black-box room for television production.

A more expensive scenario calls for a brand-new performing-arts venue ($105.7 million), plus converting the existing Civic Center into a dedicated arena ($39.6 million). Additional expenses would make the estimated cost of both approaches even higher.

Trying to preserve the current facility’s blend of intimate arts space (the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium) and cavernous arena space would be both expensive and ill-advised, said Westlake. “It would be difficult to renovate both facilities in place and make them excellent,” he said.

Horning in

Despite the preliminary nature of Westlake’s design ideas, they seemed to draw mostly supportive comments. Executive Director Margie Meares of the Clean Air Community Trust sought assurances from Westlake that the building would meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” standards. Westlake said that it would, though it would be more likely to qualify for “silver” certification rather than the more stringent “gold” or “platinum” standards.

“We should look at a responsible building model, especially in an area where … residents place a value on the environment,” said Westlake.

The task force also heard from Asheville Symphony Orchestra horn player Mike Brubaker, who evoked an image of the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium with a decidedly Vincent Price flair — darkened entryways, precipitous stairways, broken door latches, cramped chambers, leaky ceilings and cement ramps hostile to hard-soled shoes.

But the aged auditorium’s most serious flaw, said Brubaker, is its sound. “It’s dry. It’s tinny. It requires musicians to exaggerate what they are playing in order to achieve a balance,” he explained, urging the city to build a performance space worthy of its performers.

The symphony’s executive director, Steven Hageman, while embracing plans to rebuild the ailing Civic Center, asked that the construction schedule be staggered to allow the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium to remain open for business.

“We really can’t afford to be closed down for two years,” said Hageman, predicting that patrons “would be glad to go through plastic sheeting to get to the symphony.”

Several speakers voiced concern that sports are getting short shrift as plans for a performing-arts space move forward.

Making cents

Although the meeting focused on the design — not the financing — of a refurbished performance space, Powell’s announcement of a $1 million challenge grant from the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation brought applause for its suggestion that the funding for the project may indeed be out there somewhere.

The Civic Center Task Force is scheduled to present its final report at City Council’s Feb. 28 formal session. And at the Jan. 18 meeting, Davis said he hoped the group’s work would not be in vain.

But he cautioned, “If we don’t hand it over — with a plan to proceed — to a group of dedicated citizens, then it’s not going to happen.”

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