Curtain of Optimism Rises

Monday, November 12, 2012
A DLR-designed 650-seat auditorium at Fairfax school in Arizona is one of the examples the Storm Lake Schools auditorium committee explored. The firm has designed school auditoriums for Iowa districts including Nevada, Urbandale, Ankeny and Bettendorf.

Members of the committee charged with creating a plan for a new multi-million-dollar performance auditorium proposed at Storm Lake High School were called together again Thursday night. In the high school media center, they huddled with a creative team from DNR Group, the architects recently chosen to carry the project forward.

The tone of the two-hour session was optimistic, with no one in the room questioning whether a Dec. 4 vote would pass to provide the estimated $17.5 million funding stream for the auditorium and extensive high school renovation also to be planned by DLR.

It quickly became apparent that the district will not have a plan in hand when it goes to the voters next month.

DLR Principal Vance Ward told the Pilot-Tribune he hopes to have the plan done by next summer. In a majority of such projects the Des Moines-branch of the national firm creates, the determination of finances now comes before the facility plan, he noted.

"In these times, most districts want to say this is the money we have to work with, design us a facility within that budget."

As a first step, he encouraged the committee to go looking at other school performance auditoriums that have been built around the region. Committee members want to move through that stage quickly, saying they already visited other facilities months ago in the early stages of planning with the previous architect, INS.

After that firm came back with a proposal school district leaders found much too expensive, four firms were interviewed to find an architect to design projects the district feels it can afford. Leaders of DLR, the newly-chosen firm, seem confident they can achieve an auditorium and renovation within the $17.5 ceiling.

Committee members and school board members seemed impressed with the firm's qualifications, as it showed slides of several auditoriums it has designed around the state and beyond in recent years. They include facilities at Ankeny, Urbandale, Bettendorf, Nevada, Bennington, Neb. and others.

Each of the facilities they showed was unique, tailored to the needs and wishes of the particular district, from intimate to sprawling, modern to traditional, bright to muted, from lecture hall-appearance to theater-style arrangements. Costs of the auditoriums shown ranged roughly from $4.2-$6 million, all far below the $13 million auditorium pricetag estimated under the earlier INS plan. Ward and his designer Chris Osore, both at the meeting, have teamed on four school auditorium projects currently under construction around the state.

The DLR team, at the request of the district, also toured the Sami Center in Spirit Lake, a performance auditorium that the committee has used as something of a model to begin their own planning. Ward praised that structure, saying it is basically a "standard bearer" to shoot for.

Members of the committee seemed to be in agreement that the Storm Lake auditorium should have 750-800 seats - more than some of the other DLR projects built in Iowa, less than a few. Some noted, however, that they have heard from some members of the public suggesting that is not big enough and the facility should have enough seats to hold at least all the students and staff at the high school. They agreed that while school performances should take precedence, the auditorium should also be open to hosting community events and possibly touring professional performances.

There are many ways to save costs, according to DLR, such as going with a slightly recessed stagefront orchestra area rather than a full orchestra pit, eliminating a "black box" arrangement, holding down lobby size, and doubling up uses of some spaces - such as a band room that can double as a "green room" for stage production characters to prepare, simply with the addition of a restroom.

The district envisions the auditorium in the front of the existing building's gym area, although location has not been set in stone. Such an arrangement would preserve existing parking, though would probably force closing or moving the Tornado Drive roadway passing in front of the school, according to school board member Peter Steinfeld. A benefit would be that a joint lobby could serve both the auditorium and the gym, solving a longtime shortcoming for athletic events. Some felt the lobby should be large enough to also house art shows.

Superintendent of School Carl Turner was optimistic that with the new architects, a project that has been desired for many years and most recently discussed for over a year, will finally begin to take shape quickly.

We've got to all get on the same page," he told the committee.

He said he knows there is some concern about the fact that the district is going to a funding vote without a final plan yet drawn. "We don't have a picture of what it will look like to show - we're not there yet," he said.

He said that ultimately, components of the projects will depend on the actual construction bids received. He said that if the project comes in cheaper than the $17.5 million maximum the district has set out, the district will not levy or borrow more money than it needs to complete the work.

He said he has been speaking to as many groups around the city as he can, trying to answer questions and show the impact of the election. If the three ballot questions are approved by voters Dec. 4, at maximum the owner of a $100,000-valued home would be paying $55.70 more a year. With no rollback on commercial property, the owner of a $100,000 commercial site would pay $117 more. For each $1,000 in agland property, it would be about 67 cents more per year according to district calculations.

With the use of existing "penny" sales tax being proposed, which will be collected through 2029 regardless, Turner said, "I'm not going to tell anybody how to vote, but they can basically get a $17.5 million project here for $6.5 million - that's the amount they would be taxed on."

Architect Ward told the locals that he is "not riding into town to tell you what to do." Instead, he said his firm's idea of design is to first ask questions of the community, listen, and then draw up a plan based on the goals and priorities of the community.

He suggested that the Storm Lake project should be flexible enough to suit a crowd of a few hundred for a school play, or a sellout crowd for a professional production of Broadway's "CATS."

The company' expertise translated into many suggestions for the committee - for example, if built on one level, about 800 seats would be a maximum - any more would put viewers too far from the stage to see facial expressions, which ruins the connection between performers and audience. New codes mean stages must be designed without steps. Particular schemes for elevation of seats toward the rear of the house, and staggering rows of seats so that no one has a head directly in front blocking the view, make for a more pleasant experience. A "clamshell" angled ceiling, and three-dimensional wall treatments, improve acoustics dramatically. A good addition is a "gridiron" - a steel shell within the walls and ceiling, so that set pieces, banners - even performers - can be suspended from the ceiling at any point. Many touring performances such as Circus Soleil will not appear in an auditorium without a gridiron.

Committee members seemed to like various elements from the different projects. They said they didn't want a space so large and high that it would seem cavernous for a small performance. They stressed that they want a large, 50-foot-range stage, to accommodate the numbers of students who take part in orchestra and band. Ward agreed, saying that if the district compromises on stage size, "you will regret it the entire life of the facility." Several said that while they want an attractive structure, "function over form" should be a priority.

"For students of fine arts, this will finally be their place... and they should help run it," said Jerry Johnson, committee member and president of the fine arts boosters. "They will no longer be shoved into a gym or a back room. We want to make sure that every child has a chance to be on that stage."

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