County officials question design of VAA's proposed performing arts center

King County’s Historic Preservation Office has raised concerns about the design of Vashon Allied Arts’ performing arts center, saying the glass-fronted, barn-inspired structure fails to complement the historic intersection where it’s slated to be built.

County preservation officials met several times with VAA’s architects and project managers over the course of several months to discuss their concerns and seek modifications, they said. The intersection — Cemetery Road and Vashon Highway — is one of the county’s most historically intact crossroads, and county preservationists had hoped to convince VAA to build an arts center that fit in with the corner’s white-washed, turn-of-the-century buildings.

“I’m sorry to say, we haven’t been successful,” said Charlie Sundberg, the office’s preservation planner.

Julie Koler, who oversees the county’s preservation office, also voiced concern. “It’s a beautiful building. It’s just out of place,” she said.

But VAA officials take issue with the county’s assessment, saying they made changes in the art center’s design as a result of the preservation office’s concerns. They added skylights to a breezeway, widened the entrance and altered their landscaping plan, said Kirk Robinson, project manager for VAA’s arts center.

What’s more, Robinson said, the issue of architectural style and how buildings complement one another “is a highly subjective process.”

“I disagree with (Sundberg’s) view,” Robinson said. “We feel we’ve been very sensitive to that corner.”

The issue comes at a milestone for the $16 million project. VAA has just completed its building permit application, filing hundreds of pages of construction documents and technical reports with the county. Under state environmental review laws, the project will be open to public comment between May 17 and June 7.

VAA had hoped to break ground on the 20,000-square-foot hall this summer. But Molly Reed, VAA’s executive director, said the organization still has about $6 million to raise before construction can begin.

Asked if groundbreaking could occur this summer, she answered, “Unless a miracle happens, I don’t think so.”

The proposed center has strong support in the arts community, especially among those who sing and perform. The structure will boast a 300-seat auditorium with a 370-square-foot stage, a 360-square-foot orchestra pit and state-of-the-art acoustics. A 1,000-square-foot gallery will provide ample space for visual artists to display their work, and several spaces will double as classrooms, giving the bustling arts center much more room for the hundreds of students who take classes there during the course of a year.

Currently, VAA’s performances and classes take place in the small Blue Heron Arts Center, built as an Odd Fellows Hall 100 years ago. The structure, though rich in history, is cramped and wholly inadequate, said Brian Brenno, a well-known Island glass-blower who teaches several classes for VAA.

“They serve a lot of students, and they have a hard time scheduling their classes. They need more classrooms to support all the people who want to take their classes,” Brenno said.

Noting that about a fourth of his income as an artist comes from VAA, he added, “This organization is an economic driver for the Island, and it’s grown with its demographics from a small, little organization to a bigger one, and it needs to serve its bigger community.”

The issue of the project and its historic and architectural context has been discussed in various circles for some time. VAA’s blog about the performing arts center includes several posts about the history of the corner and the Blue Heron Arts Center, most of them written by Verna Everitt, VAA’s office manager, a third-generation Islander and a board member of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association.

The heritage association recently went on record in support of the project, according to an article in its spring newsletter, also written by Everitt. Bob Fetterly, who chairs the heritage association’s board, said the resolution passed easily, with only one board member voting against it. For his part, Fetterly strongly supports VAA’s effort and is frustrated by the second-guessing VAA has faced from some corners of the community.

“Once an organization gets a great idea in their mind, everyone picks it apart,” he said. “I know (VAA’s) heart is in the right place; they want a nice performance hall.”

Fetterly, however, said he didn’t know that at the time of the heritage association’s vote, county preservation officers were voicing concern about how the new center would affect the nature of the historic intersection. Since the vote, he added, “Several board members have expressed some concern about it.”

That concern was prompted by an email from Holly Taylor, a professional historic preservationist and longtime islander who was disappointed by the heritage association’s vote. Taylor, too, is a VAA supporter who says she sees the need for a larger performance center for the Island. But the construction of the new building will lead to the demolition of McFeeds, one of Vashon’s historic structures, she noted.

“I was a little disturbed that the heritage association  … would endorse any project that would lead to the demolition of a historic building,” she said.

As for the VAA’s design, she, too, is concerned about how it fits in with the historic intersection and wishes VAA “would tweak their design to make it a little more responsive” to the old buildings — the Fuller Store, the Blue Heron and the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, in particular — that now dominate the crossroads.

“The new arts center could be seen as intrusive or it could be seen as complimentary. I want it to be complimentary,” she said.

Sundberg, from the county, said that he and his colleagues didn’t expect VAA to design a building that matched the historic structures at the corner. Rather, he said, he wanted the architects to consider using various design elements — from the structure’s form and materials to its scale and the way it’s situated on the site — to complement those old buildings.

The architects, he said, told him they used the metaphor of a barn to inspire the design. But there are no other barn-like structures at that corner, he said.

“There are several characteristics (from that corner) that you could draw on for the design — form, envelope, texture, character. And a large, glass-ended barn shape probably isn’t one of them,” he said.

Of particular concern, Sundberg said, is the scale of the building. “It’s nearly the length of a football field,” he said.

“That’s highway-scale design. It’s not pedestrian,” he added.

The county’s historic preservation office doesn’t have a regulatory role — only the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Design does. Sundberg said his office will likely weigh in during the upcoming comment period in the hope of affecting some change.

But others expressed frustration with those who say the new structure needs to fit into the historic character of the neighborhood. Brenno, who was raised on Vashon and serves on the heritage association’s board, said longtime Islanders accept the fact of change and see no reason to try to maintain the look of the past.

“Are we not allowed to leave our mark … on this Island? Does it all have to reflect the past?” he asked. “What’s wrong with us leaving our mark of modern architecture on that corner?”

Robinson, meanwhile, said the corner’s history is not only architectural, but also economic. Center, as that intersection was called, used to be a thriving part of the Island, a commercial hub on Vashon.

The new performing arts center, he said, will “bring a lot of vitality back to that corner.”


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