Friday, February 03, 2006

Making the Case for a Performing Arts Center at Midtown Plaza

Before anyone reads this the wrong way, I want to make one thing clear: I support the development of Renaissance Square. I believe it will improve the physical environment of the Center City, I believe it will improve the quality of bus transportation (both inter and intra-city), I believe it will lead to increased 24-hour activity downtown, I believe it will improve the viability of Main Street retail, I believe it will improve public safety downtown, I believe it will improve the MCC educational experience, and I believe it will improve the quality of performing arts in the region. That being said, I'm worried about the decision our leaders may make with regards to the location of the mid-sized theatre that will not be located at Renaissance Square.

Today's paper reports that the decision-makers are leaning towards building the new mid-sized theatre on what is now a parking lot bounded by Main, Chestnut, and Gibbs streets. There are indeed many pluses to that location. It sits kitty-corner from the Eastman Theatre, our local grande dame of the arts, and would be amidst the urban campus of the prestigious Eastman School of Music. Also, and most importantly, there are no buildings on the land. It would be easy, inexpensive, and non-controversial to build there. But is it really the best location for this theatre, which will likely be the most highly used of our performing arts venues? My opinion: absolutely not.

As the title of this post indicates, I believe that this theatre would best serve the needs of the community if it were built at the current site of the McCurdy Building at the Main Street entrance to Midtown Plaza (see picture below). This ugly, hulking structure is the unsightly face of Midtown along Main Street. Many passersby surely think to themselves, "if it looks that bad on the outside, I don't even want to see what's on the inside." That is regrettable, because on the inside, Midtown is actually an attractive, albeit dated, place. Unlike the Urban Land Institute, which recommends tearing down nearly all of Midtown, I propose something much less radical. If we could redevelop the perimeter of Midtown, with newer, brighter, more welcoming entrances, and incorporate a variety of new uses, it is logical that more of us may find our way into it. Building this theatre on Main Street as part of the redevelopment of Midtown would help accomplish that goal.

There are other practical reasons for building the theatre at Midtown. The underground parking garage and truck tunnel would certainly be beneficial for theatre-goers and arts groups using the facility. There would be potential for shared operation of HVAC, security, food services, etc. Its location in between Renaissance Square and the Eastman Theatre would fill that gap and encourage walking between the different facilities. If we as a community were willing to invest $60 million in constructing this new performing arts venue at Midtown, its current owner/developer (New York-based Pembroke Companies) might be willing to chip in to improve other parts of the facility such as modernizing the interior, renovating the Tower, or improving the facade along Broad Street and Clinton Avenue. An innovative idea would be to give the naming rights for the theatre to the company that agrees to take significant space at the nearly-vacant Tower (i.e., Constellation Centre or Verizon Theatre)

I'm not dead-set against the other site, but I think that site has the opportunity to be something more appropriate for its location, such as a mid-rise residential structure with first-floor retail catering to the student and Grove Place population. That sort of structure is less likely to be built, without exorbitant public sector assistance, at Midtown. This is an exciting opportunity for downtown, let's not waste it by taking the path of least resistance.