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Design Commission appoints committee to review new Zach Scott theatre

Friday, February 5, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The new Zach Scott Theatre, underwritten in part by city bond funds, would be a tall and significant presence along Lamar Boulevard, but the Design Commission wasn’t entirely pleased with its proposed orientation or relationship to a larger ZACH campus.


The Zach Scott Theatre Center was originally incorporated as the Austin Civic Theatre in the 1930s. The theatre company has built at least two stage settings, with the family of Austin-reared actor Zachary Scott providing some of the funding for the second, and larger, 1972 facility. According to the Zach Scott Web site, attendance for the community theatre has grown from 25,000 to 150,000 annually.


In 2006, Austin voters approved Proposition 4, which allocated $10 million in bonds to fund a new stage for ZACH. The goal of its supporters was to raise $25 million to support a new 500-seat theatre and education facility to double current attendance numbers.


Fast forward four years. Architect Arthur Andersson has unveiled the initial plans for the new ZACH stage. In a nutshell, it would be an aluminum-sheathed facility with a ground floor artwork “marquee,” plus an 80-foot flyloft. Its only review will be at the Design Commission since no variances are required.


The theatre project would include a high-flying flyloft at one end of the property, which would rise about 10 feet above other buildings in the neighborhood. The flyloft is expected, and intended, to provide a good view of downtown.


The long side of the theatre building would be located along Lamar Boulevard and would have no entranceway. Commissioner Juan Cotera called the decision to create so little action along Lamar “a huge mistake.” Other existing projects in the area, including condominium projects, Cotera noted, have addressed the street well.


The new ZACH theatre space would be located on the land adjacent to the existing Schlotzsky’s Deli and tied into the other Zach Scott campus buildings. The Lamar-side edge of the building would be, for the most part, shrouded in trees.


The building’s west-side entrance for patrons would be cloaked in glass, intended to create a kind of translucent curtain effect as patrons enter the building.  Once in the entryway, the building would split into a main and lower level. Patrons would enter at mid-level.


The lower level would be where dressing rooms, rest rooms, and the orchestra pit are. The existing level would be where seating is located. The building would have no balcony.


Former Design Commissioner Joan Hyde is the landscape architect on the project. She talked about a theatre that incorporates inviting outdoor open space, a plan to preserve existing trees on the property, and a rain garden for drainage.


Design Commission members had serious concerns about orientation on two fronts: 1) The theatre’s busy entrance would not be on Lamar, a decision made to encourage pedestrian engagement with the theatre and other buildings on the Zach Scott site; and 2) it’s not completely clear how people would get from their cars to the theatre.


Commissioner James Shieh was the first to raise concerns, noting the confusion people might feel passing through, or near, a rain garden in order to get to the theatre’s entrance. Hyde noted that the project was designed to be pedestrian friendly.


The complex has a number of existing buildings, which could be considered a wonderful lark or a terrible detriment to those parking in the nearby parking lot. One of the buildings, on Toomey Road, was recently renovated to become a new ZACH Production and Creativity Center, known as Z-PACC. Commissioners reached no final conclusion on existing building placement.


Commissioners also talked about when and where people will enter the Zach Scott Theatre property, and what the most efficient trip might be from parking space to theatre seat. Commissioners also had questions about access to the site.


The Design Commission agreed to its usual procedure: appointing a committee to review the project. Those committee members will be Chair Juan Cotera, David Knoll, and Eleanor McKinney.

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