The first meeting of the committee will be Oct. 31.
Until now, work on replacing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has consisted primarily of laying the groundwork and creating the financing framework for the estimated $275 million facility.
On Monday, the project will take a significant step forward as the Van Wezel Foundation and the city of Sarasota introduce the task force that will be charged with recruiting and selecting an architect to design the Sarasota Performing Arts Center, which is envisioned to stand as the centerpiece of The Bay, the ongoing transformation of the 53-acre bayfront site in downtown.
The Bay recently completed a 10-day grand opening celebration of the first phase or the park.
The newly seated Architecture Review Committee is tasked with drafting a request for qualifications (RFQ), which will be posted for 30 days. From that list to it will invite 15 to 20 requests for proposal (RFP) approximately 20 days later. The committee will then pare that list to five or six firms, according to Foundation CEO Cheryl Mendelson.
“At no point will architects submit any concept designs during this process,” Mendelson said. “It’s really about their body of work. It’s about philosophy. It’s about whether chemistry is a good fit and understanding the aspirations of the community and the project.”
The RFP have attached all of the requirements, including a building brief that includes specs culled from 18,000 survey responses. They include a 2,100-seat main hall, a 300-seat flexible performing space and a total of 165,000 square feet of building utilizing inside and outside education, event and rooftop spaces.
“We don’t want to be too directive as much as talking about the programming we want to achieve so that the architect really has the greatest flexibility to envision a building that will be spectacular,” Mendelson said. “Over the last three years we’ve gotten responses from over 18,000 people throughout the region on the aspirations that they see for a new performing arts center. Those aspirations were harmonized into the building brief that also includes the technical requirements for resiliency, FEMA and any restrictions because of its location. Also, they will have a range of a budget and no money will be discussed during the process.”
The Foundation works in harmony with the Bay Park Conservancy, the nonprofit group chartered by the city to develop and operate The Bay. The Van Wezel Foundation operates in harmony with, but not overseen by, the Conservancy.
“We work in partnership with the Bay Park Conservancy because they are developing the green space and blue space and we are building the building in the park, so we work really hand in glove,” Mendelson said. “That building-to-park relationship is critical when we bring an architect on board to look at how we’re going to realize the promise of the park together with the new performing arts center.”
Among those collaborations is simulcast technology, which will allow performances taking place inside the theater to be broadcast on screens within the park at no charge, helping fulfill the Bay Park Conservancy’s commitment to provide free programming to the public.
Mendelson said she expects the RFQ and RFP process to take approximately 50 days complete. Once the finalists are selected, site visits and “listening tours” will take place to refine final proposals. The search for an architect is funded by a $1 million appropriation from the State of Florida.
The first meeting of the committee will be Oct. 31. Mendelson expects the selection process to take about six months. All meetings of the committee will be open and finalists will be interviewed publicly as well, providing a an opportunity for citizens to ask questions.
The time line for construction to begin is 2026 and an opening date in 2028. Regarding the TIF funding, Mendelson is confident the tax overlay district in the area of The Bay will over-perform preliminary estimates, as Bay Park Conservancy officials have told both the city and county commissions.
“The projections actually have been so tremendous that the city staff believes, and our economic development advisor believes, that there will be significant resources to help fund this project,” she said.
The new facility won’t replace the Van Wezel, but will be built on the opposite corner of the current parking lot, which will also be converted into green space during the final phase of The Bay redevelopment. The location is necessary in part because FEMA guidelines require it be built outside the “wave action zone.” The Van Wezel is within yards of Sarasota Bay, and is susceptible to flooding and other environmental hazards.
Mendelson said the Foundation believes the 55-year-old facility should be repurposed and not demolished.
“The city will assemble a blue ribbon committee — I think they’re calling it a purple ribbon committee — to take a look at whether or not the Van Wezel Hall can be repurposed in a meaningful way, and the Foundation looks forward to collaborating with the city, The Bay, and everyone else to realize and activate the entire park for generations to come,” she said. “We don’t view this as competition (between the buildings). We really want people to understand this is the extension of the legacy and the vision that the founders of the Van Wezel and the city had 55 years ago.”
The Author: Andrew Warfield
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North