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Architect outlines options for Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium

October 12th, 2018

Burlington, VT - Memorial Auditorium opened in 1928 as a 2,600-person auditorium and civic center and has been a staple of the city’s downtown for decades, featuring concerts, sporting events, a farmers market and a teen center.

The city of Burlington is working with consultants to finalize a design for a renovated Memorial Auditorium that would include an addition on the building’s north side to add a loading ramp and modernize the building.

Community members have stressed a desire to keep the auditorium as a multi-use space, both in a survey that ran over the summer and in a series of outreach meetings organized by the city, the latest occurring Thursday night.

Memorial Auditorium opened in 1928 as a 2,600-person auditorium and civic center and has been a staple of the city’s downtown for decades, featuring concerts, sporting events, a farmers market and a teen center.

The brick multi-story structure has been vacant since December 2016 after the city engineer recommended closure as the building fell into disrepair. The building was ruled structurally unsound and needed substantial renovations to make it safe for long-term occupancy.

Architect Steve Shetler of Boston-based Bargmann Hendrie + Archetype Inc. presented designs at the Thursday meeting featuring three thematic models — arts-based, food-based and music-based — for the auditorium’s ground floor. He said feedback from attendees made it clear that the community wants the space to remain multi-use.

“I think there’s a desire to bring the building back, but not pigeonhole its definition,” he said. “I’d articulate it as bringing it back as a multi-use facility to serve a number of civic needs in the community that have been missing since it closed.”

Rather than choosing one of the thematic models, Shetler said, it’s likely that the ground level will feature large and small rooms that aren’t specifically designed for certain programs but could be moving forward.

“I think in the end, they see the annex the same way they see the auditorium,” he said. “It’s a big space, I can have a farmers market in it, I can have an arts market in it.”

The addition will feature a new lobby and more restrooms on the ground floor. In addition, there would be a loading dock connecting to the main auditorium that will make it much easier for acts to set up their shows, Shelter said.

“The notion of the addition is to address fundamental shortcomings that can’t be addressed in the main building,” he said.

The most recent designs would remove the basketball court and use the main floor as an events space with retractable seating.

There is no price tag yet on the project, but the survey put the project cost at $15 million to $25 million.

The consultants will take the feedback from the survey and workshops to create a final model, which will include designs, pricing and financing options. They will present this final model at a Parks, Arts and Culture Committee the evening of Dec. 6.

City officials hope to have a plan and a price tag for voters to approve at March Town Meeting.

The survey found strong support for renovation of the auditorium, with 84 percent of the nearly 2,600 Burlingtonians who responded saying they would vote to support renovation. Citizens expressed the most support in using the space as “a place for shows and entertainment,” “a civic and community meeting space,” and a “farmers’ market space.”

The city originally had discussions with the University of Vermont about building a facility that the city and UVM would share, but UVM decided in late 2016 not to pursue that.

Mayor Miro Weinberger kick-started the new process with a memorandum to the City Council in December 2017. Memorial Auditorium had taken a backseat to the Moran Plant redevelopment project, which the city pulled the plug on in September 2017.

While 73 percent of respondents said they would support paying $110 a year — the highest cost for taxpayers listed in the survey — the survey was taken before the City Council approved putting a $70 million high school renovation bond and a $30 million bond to upgrade the city’s stormwater and wastewater infrastructure on the November ballot.

While those bonds need only 50 percent support, the Memorial Auditorium bond is a general obligation bond which would require two-thirds support from voters.

Will Clavelle, a business projects and policy specialist at the city’s Community & Economic Development Office, said that the timing of the vote would be “tough” following the two other bond votes.

“For Memorial to be following on the heels of that, it’s an uphill battle,” he said. “But the more we can get public input and people involved with activities like this, and incorporate as many uses as possible that are lacking in the community, then the more support we can get and the better chance it’ll have.”

Memorial Auditorium renovations have been on the ballot before. In 1994, a $1 million renovation bond for the auditorium, City Hall and the Ethan Allen Fire House received 59.7 percent support but fell below the required two-thirds threshold.

Paul Lafayette attended Thursday’s meeting and has a long history with Memorial Auditorium, starting with sneaking into shows with friends as a teenager. He worked for a promotion company that held events there, and his grandfather is remembered on a plaque inside for serving in World War I.

“The city’s moving in the right direction, we’re finally getting somebody who wants to make it better and get it used again, it’s a big space and our city misses it,” he said. “It really does.”

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