Jan 15 2015

OPINION: School Auditorium Missteps

Ballot measure failure was largely a result of seating loss, unnecessary costs and flawed information and decisions. There are ways for an improved 2016 ballot measure.

Six months ago, Piedmont voters defeated the $13.5 bond measure (Measure H) to rejuvenate the school district’s Alan Harvey Theater, a major disappointment to its ardent supporters. In hindsight, the results might have been different if the school district had been more forthright in its communications and thorough in its planning. There was no lack of public outreach. But information and advice provided to the Board and public by the district’s staff, committees, and consultants all too often was incomplete or misleading, resulting in flawed decisions. Among other items, the Board was persuaded to authorize $360,000 for the preparation of design development drawings without waiting for the outcome of the election, a high-risk decision with marginal benefit.

What began in 2005 as a $5.4 million renovation was changed in 2012 into a $9.8 million theater remodel plus a whole new wing, based on a plan volunteered by designer Mark Becker. A 17-member committee supported the expanded program and declared that “Piedmont High School should be thought of as a performing arts high school”, meaning that performing arts would become the academic focus.

The new wing included a corridor with wheel-chair access to the auditorium, an elaborate instructional classroom, and improved backstage facilities. The balance of the project consisted of remodeling the existing theater. In all of the district communications, there is not a single meeting note, resolution, letter, or ballot measure statement that informed anyone that seating capacity would be reduced from 500 to 320 seats, a loss of 180 seats. This meant three school assemblies instead of two would be required for student body presentations and a smaller audience capacity for theatrical productions.

About 50 good seats were necessarily lost in providing a cross-aisle for wheel-chair access, but over 100 were lost in changing from “continental” (no center aisles) to conventional seating and in moving the control room into the auditorium instead of in a loft above the lobby. Forty-five temporary seats would have been above the orchestra pit with very poor sight lines. A smaller audience capacity would have resulted in loss in rental revenue, which partially offsets the cost of theater management and other operating expenses.

Curiously, the program committee did not mention improvement in acoustics (nor did the ballot measure), but the theater consultant in an appendix suggested adjustable acoustic draperies for the glass windows. The consultant did not, however, recommend the installation of plastic “clouds” in the ceiling as shown in the architect’s illustrations. No concern was expressed for the destruction of architectural symmetry in the auditorium or in the 50% loss in the windows that provide daylight when the curtains are open.

The district implied that the theater could not continue in use if the bond measure failed. Although it is not wheel chair accessible, the theater can legally continue in use as long as the community is willing to tolerate its various deficiencies, many of which are matters of deferred maintenance, such as the leaking roof. If the theater were unsafe, it would have been shut down.

Many voters were concerned about the cost of the project. District staff, aided by consultants, added essential items such as fees and contingencies to the original estimate of $9.8 million ($560 per square foot) and arrived at a total budget of $14.5 million. When the cost of debt service is added, the total project cost came to over $20 million —about $1,200 per square foot. Cost comparisons made with three other school theater “renovation” projects were virtually meaningless because the other theaters had twice the seating capacity and very different scopes of work.

Vila Construction’s construction cost estimate, incidentally, was 15% lower than the architect’s estimate. Had the Vila estimate been used, the bond measure would have been $11.5 million rather than $13.5 million. The “hybrid” bond option chosen by the Board deferred payment on the principal for six years in order to reduce the immediate impact on taxpayers, but added over one million dollars to the debt service.

It would have behooved the district at the outset to establish a project schedule that started construction promptly at the end of a school year, rather than in the middle. This would have allowed two full summer months for site preparation and demolition in good weather with minimum disruption to campus activity. Rental of interim theater and classroom facilities would then have been during one school year rather than portions of two years.

There is no pleasure in calling attention to these missteps. However, the needless loss in time, money and human energy over a two-year period cannot be ignored. The next election in November 2016 gives the district ample time to review its internal procedures and take corrective steps. The district has everything to be gained by thorough planning and full disclosure of issues to a generous, involved, and supportive parent community.

William Blackwell – Piedmont Resident and Retired Architect

Editors’ Note:  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

3 Responses to “OPINION: School Auditorium Missteps”

  1. While the Alan Harvey bond measure failed to garner sufficient support, it is past time for those who attacked it to stop making inaccurate attacks. The School Board has embarked on a year-long effort to ascertain what the community wants and is willing to support in the Piedmont schools. There will be plent of opportunity for everyone to provide their thoughts.

    Mr. Blackwell’s opinion is inaccurate (or, in his terms, fails to provide “full disclosure”) in the following respects, among others:

    (1) The Board authorized spending $360,000 on design drawings only after having guarantees of more than that in donations for Alan Harvey. The District ultimately received $560,000 in donations, which are and will be used to make interim repairs in Alan Harvey to extend its life a bit longer. Not only did the District gain in donations more than it spent (no loss at all), if the bond had been approved, the design drawings would have expedited completion of the work significantly (the hoped for benefit). This issue has been discussed and disclosed repeatedly–including before and after the decision to proceed with design drawings.

    (2) Mr. Blackwell contends the plan included a “whole new wing” and a plan to make performing arts “the academic focus.” The plan included one performing arts classroom, which would have been the ONLY performing arts classroom, which otherwise must use the theater itself, adding to its wear and tear. Further, “the academic focus” of PHS is education–having a performing arts program does not detract from any other academic efforts.

    (3) Mr. Blackwell expresses concern about the reduction in seating capacity and implies some would have been unnecessary. Yes, seating would have been reduced, which the District and performing arts staff considered relatively low impact compared to the gains from renovation. Having a center aisle enhanced safety by providing faster exit during a fire or other emergency, and the control room would have been at level to allow required ADA access and provide more room in the lobby. QKA was asked to work primarily within the existing space. An entirely new structure could provide more seating, but will cost more.

    (4) Mr. Blackwell asserts that the District “implied that the theater could not continue in use if the bond measure failed.” That is not true. The District pointed out that the structure is not in compliance with the ADA and a lawsuit could force its closure. That remains true today. This was fully disclosed and discussed in an FAQ on the District’s website, as well as public meetings.

    (5) Mr. Blackwell asserts that a Vila Construction construction cost estimate was lower than QKA’s estimate. This is not accurate, as shown in the District’s FAQ on its website. Moreover, Mr. Blackwell then suggests the amount of the bond could have been $11.5M rather than $13.5M. Mr. Blackwell ignores the need to include soft costs (architect’s fees, permit fees, etc.) and contigency funds in the budget, and hence in the bond amount. The District cannot make up cost overruns from its General Fund, which is devoted to running the schools, and thus must have an adequate contingency.

    Frankly, now is not the time for further debate about the QKA plan. The community needs to express its views on whether Alan Harvey is an appropriate venue for the PHS performing arts program and community events, and, if not, what should be done. But repeated attacks that are inconsistent with the facts are corrosive to constructive community discussion, and should stop.

    Rick Raushenbush

  2. At taxpayer expense the School District issued a letter in support of the Theater Bond Measure. The city wide mailer stated: “Architects and engineers have determined that the PHS Theater has significant . . . accessibility issues that need to be addressed . . . so that the publicly used facility is in compliance with the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and current building codes” (Constance Hubbard March 2014). However, the District was never put on notice to correct any deficiencies. The Theater is shabby, but it is legal. Had Measure H passed, the upgrades trigger ADA & amp; code legal requirements; no legal requirements exist that trigger the upgrades.

    Taxpayer funds should not be used for campaign material and especially not used for disingenuous material.

  3. Mr. Blackwell made some excellent points and I hope those who objected to the last theater project design, including myself, are open-minded in fairly assessing and potentially supporting a better design. A reason that district facilities so often fall into disrepair is the low priority apparently placed on basic good maintenance. It has long looked like the janitors and gardeners are the first to be cut in budget battles. Compare that with the district literally throwing away $360,000 by having prepared detailed theater drawings before the June Measure H election was held.

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