VAA moves forward on plans for a new center

The 85-year-old McFeeds building will likely be demolished within six months, Vashon Allied Arts officials say, the most visible sign yet that the organization is moving forward on its plans to construct a new arts center at the site.

And while the full scope of the project has yet to be determined and no designs have been completed, VAA’s executive director Molly Reed said that she and VAA board members now have a clearer sense of the construction timeline for the project and how it will be financed.

“We’ve broken through a wall that has allowed us to move forward,” Reed said. “We’ve come unstuck.”

VAA announced its intentions to build a state-of-the-art performance center — including a theater, a gallery and classroom space — at the site where McFeeds now sits when it bought the property in 2008. Since then, the arts organization has raised $5 million in funds that are immediately available for the project — a sum that includes gifts from 27 separate donors, $75,000 from King County and a $1.1 million allocation from a state program called Building for the Arts.

VAA has also garnered $7.7 million in commitments from trusts designated for the project — money Reed said would be used to pay off debt and serve as a reserve fund to help operate the new facility.

At this point, VAA still needs to raise an additional $5 million and borrow approximately $3 million more for the new building, bringing the latest projected cost of the facility to $12.6 million, Reed said. She’s hopeful, she added, that groundbreaking for the new facility could take place in the spring of 2012.

Paul Martinez, a VAA board member who chairs the organization’s building committee, said that timeline was possible but still tentative.

“We wouldn’t break ground unless we felt comfortable that we could complete that construction,” he said. “That moment is important for the whole board to participate in, and we aren’t there by any means yet.”

The demolition of Mc-

Feeds is a necessary step in the process, Martinez said, one he hopes Islanders will understand and support.

“There are interesting things about the McFeeds building that some people want to preserve,” he said. As a result, VAA has consulted with designers and engineers about the possibility of incorporating the building into VAA’s expansion plans.

“Unfortunately, none of the reports have been positive,” he said. “The engineers have been very skeptical about trying to put money in the building. For our organization, the building represents a liability we take very seriously. The interior is not a really safe place, and it has been broken into and vandalized.”

Martinez added that he hopes the new arts center will be a boost to other private businesses in the intersection and provide a bridge to Vashon’s past.

Noting that a school and a church stood on the site prior to 1926, Martinez said VAA was “enthusiastic to bring back the historic function of that corner as a public space.”

VAA officials have long maintained that a new arts center is needed. The Blue Heron Art Center — where most VAA performances, classes and art exhibitions take place — is cramped and ill-equipped, with a seating capacity of only 90 seats, they note.

VAA’s push to build the new art center began in earnest in 2007, when longtime Islander and Vashon Island Chorale member Kay White approached the organization to express her interest in helping to fund the construction of a place where the chorale could hold concerts. Although VAA officials have declined to disclose the extent of White’s contributions, they have acknowledged that she was instrumental in helping VAA purchase additional property at its site, consolidating its holdings into four contiguous acres surrounding the Blue Heron.

VAA purchased the McFeeds property for $600,000 in 2008 and bought a two-acre parcel behind the property in 2009 for $160,000.

Beyond that, officials say, White, 90, has contributed significant additional resources to the campaign.

In 2008 and 2009, VAA conducted a capital campaign feasibility study, overseen by The Alford Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm, which assessed whether the organization would be able to raise the additional funds necessary to build the new facility.

The Alford Group has since been hired to consult on VAA’s current fundraising campaign, and an architectural firm has also been tapped for the project — LMN Architects, a blue chip Seattle firm best known for its design of Benaroya Hall.

Other steps forward in the process include the recent hire of the Seattle-based firm Robinson Co. to oversee development of the arts center, and the addition of several new members to VAA’s board of trustees.

Over the past couple of years, VAA has conducted a total of six by-invitation-only meetings with members of the community to assess enthusiasm for the project and answer questions about it.

Two other by-invitation-only meetings have been held with representatives of groups, including visual artists, Drama Dock, Vashon Opera, the chorale and other nonprofits likely to use the new space.

Reed said these user group meetings “told us we were on the right track,” but she also noted that based on suggestions from the meetings, the VAA board will soon consider whether to expand the project design to include an orchestra pit and at least 25 additional theater seats. Current plans call for no orchestra pit and approximately 250 seats.

Reed acknowledged that adding an orchestra pit and more seats would bump up the footprint of the entire building as well as its budget. The final decision, she said, is up to the board.

“Within a couple of months there has to be a decision as to the scope of the project,” she said. “We’re costing out what the variables look like. We’ll have to test and see.”

Reed and Martinez both said they were looking forward to initiating discussions with the larger community about the building and hope to do so after preliminary architectural designs are complete. Future outreach efforts, they said, will include the launch of a new website where Islanders will be able to post feedback about the building design, as well as more meetings.

“There will be open forums for the community,” Martinez said. “The community is most anxious about what it is going to look like, so we want to bring in the community at a stage when everything is not fixed and we can incorporate their input.”

In the meantime, Martinez said, he and other VAA board members, as well as staff, welcome hearing from Islanders.

“We’re always open to questions,” he said.

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