Friday, September 23, 2011

New performing arts centre in St. Catharines one step closer

Earlier this week, I attended a special open house on the future site of the new St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre downtown on St. Paul Street.  Lots of others took the city up on their invitation as well, resulting in a real crush of people huddled under tents and umbrellas due to the rain Wednesday afternoon, but even the weather failed to dampen the spirits of those in attendance, myself included.

On hand for the first look at conceptual design plans supplied by architect Gary McCluskie of Diamond and Schmitt Architects in Toronto was a real cross-section of people throughout Niagara, all keenly aware of the importance of this project and the fact we have but one chance to get this thing right.  For that reason, I think many might have been pleasantly surprised by what they saw, as the design is basically set now; there is still a six-week period before the plans are finalized, during which time some tweaking of the design can take place.

But overall, what we saw this week is basically what we'll see once the project is completed in a couple of years or so.  Some people were suggesting the facade was rather bland, based on the graphic included in the electronic invitation sent out by city hall earlier this month.  But it wasn't really a true reflection of what was to come, and once we saw detailed design plans this week, everything seemed to be falling into place quite nicely.

In total, the $ 54-million centre will house an 800-seat concert hall, a 150-seat dance and theatre hall, a 180-seat film theatre and a 250-seat recital hall.  That is in addition to the adjacent space, also designed by Diamond and Schmitt, that will be the new home of Brock's School of Fine Arts.  Together, they will totally transform that stretch of St. Paul Street and with it, hopefully much of the downtown core altogether.  But more on that in a moment.

As for me, I like the plans, calling for a sort of three-pod design backing onto the sloping area towards Highway 406, with the front facade made up of glass and limestone right on St. Paul Street.  It is clean, modern, and at the same time in keeping with what buildings will remain on St. Paul Street.  Lots of wood on the interior, as it appears, will lend a warmth I think will certainly contribute to the overall acoustic of all the spaces, especially the large concert hall.

That is the key, of course, getting the acoustics right.  Many a lovely-looking concert hall has had terrible acoustics, such as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, which received a major makeover years ago to help improve the sound there.  It is one of those things you simply have to get right the first time, so here's hoping this design team headed up by Gary McCluskie brings all their experience to the design table in that  regard.

Now, to the surrounding area.  I noted while visiting the site this week, already surrounding buildings are looking better, as many landlords are now investing more money into their properties and attracting many new, more upscale tenants. Just look across the street from the new home of the performing arts centre to see proof of that:  a nicely rejuvenated facade housing many businesses, including a stylish new cafe named Mahtay.  This is only the tip of the iceberg, of course.  There is money being spent to rejuvenate the old Leonard Hotel, for example, and the new parking garage on Carlisle is well on its way to completion.  So gradually that whole area will look better, and we can only hope that eventually spreads down the rest of the street and along adjacent streets in the years to come.  It will be a slow process, but the ball is now rolling, and things look good so far.

So, the early report card on progress on the new venue? I would give all parties an A at this point, as real progress is being made, and we can finally see the transformation taking place.  It can only get better, and when was the last time we said that about our downtown core?  Interesting, and fun times are on the horizon.

Let's enjoy the ride!

September 23rd, 2011.

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