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A Long, Long Road to a Greener Space

By Julie Peterson-Dorr

 

 

After 10 years of starts and stops, the city of Austin finally gets their world-class Long Center for the Performing Arts repurposed in form and function for one-third the cost.

The new $77 million Long Center stands as a testament to Austin’s commitment to the arts being funded entirely by private donations

 

 

Already on the map artistically as the ‘live music capital of the world’ substantiated with the Austin City Limits Festival, and accompanying PBS broadcast, and 6th  Street, Austin also lay home to a professional ballet, symphony and opera, and nationally-recognized theatre scene and hundreds of active community arts groups that give the city an artistic vibe. Performance space was at a premium or, as in the case of the nearly fifty-year-old Palmer Auditorium, just plain unusable. The professional performing arts groups were jockeying for time on the University of Texas schedules, while others vied for space across the city.

 

In 1998, the fate of the Palmer Auditorium was set by Austin voters, paving the way to authorize a city lease for a new performing arts center on the Palmer Auditorium site. However, even with the location secured, the future performing arts center was far from a reality. Even though voters favored a change didn’t mean the city of Austin was going to tax them for the privilege of having a new facility. After an unsuccessful attempt to get the city council to approve funding for a new facility, a new approach would have to be forged. This new cultural center would live or die based on the philanthropy of its own citizens to raise the money for the new construction, which for a city ranked 48th out of 50 cities in philanthropic giving was going to make this quite a challenge.

 

Everything Is Bigger in Texas

With no funding from federal, state or local governments to build a performing arts center, the community of Austin needed to raise money in a big way. Texan philanthropists Joe and Teresa Long were drawn to this project from the beginning compelled to help the City’s youth learn a lifelong love of music and to find permanent homes for the opera, ballet and symphony who had to navigate a competitive schedule at the University of Texas, Austin. “The city really needed this kind of facility, and my wife and I felt strongly that this facility would enhance the music educational programs for the young people here in the city,” says Joe Long. “The opera, symphony and ballet all have programs that relate to school children here, and they really needed a permanent home.”

 

The Long’s gift of $22 million is the largest individual philanthropic award given to the arts in the history of Austin and one of the biggest in the nation. Michael and Susan Dell agreed to also contribute $10 million, while Debra and Kevin Rollins and Mort and Bobbi Topfer all made signature gifts to support the redevelopment. Ultimately, it was a whole host of Austinites numbering 4,700 who donated the $77 million, plus a $10 million endowment to fund the project. From a small girl who gave $8.64 from her lemonade stand earnings on up to the Long’s $22 million, Austin pooled their resources and gave to the dream of a new arts center.

 

No Pain, No Gain

With the space and $60 million in fundraising already secured, the project seemed well on its way to becoming the new Long Center for the Performing Arts. Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill were retained and plans were underway to design a glorious venue to make Austin proud.

 

And just like the present economic downturn, Austin was hit with one in the year 2000 stalling fundraising efforts. To compound the problem even more, the initial project estimate of $50 million had nearly tripled, and the project seemed doomed but for the will of Joe Long. “I didn’t worry about the big contributors,” recalls Long. “I worried about the smaller ones who felt they contributed, but didn’t get anything for their money. I didn’t want to destroy their confidence, and I felt like I had to get it done.”

 

So it was back to the drawing board to review their options. Long knew that if they didn’t get this project done, they would lose the trust of Austin. This was especially top of mind as the Austin Museum of Art had recently met the same fate of unsuccessfully trying to raise money for a new building—a fate that Long did not want to see for the Long Center.

 

“The first plan had to be abandoned because we simply couldn’t raise the money for it,” explains Long. “I could’ve just stopped the project at that point, but if we did that, we’d never get another project done in Austin where it was dependent on people contributing money.”

 

And what Long needed was someone to help him carry the torch of this vision for Austin. He set about looking for the ideal partner—one who understood how to transform the Palmer Auditorium into a cultural center of Austin. Enter stage left the Long Center Executive Director Cliff Redd, who has five adaptive reuse buildings to his credit, was born and raised in Austin, and has a background in the arts.

 

“Joe called me and we tried to decide whether we could partner together to get the project out of the ditch and make it work,” recalls Redd. “Originally, the project was a scrape and rebuild, but the notion of adaptive reuse came into play and I knew how much more cost effective it would be. We were able to build the Long Center for $278 a square foot as opposed to the $1,200-a-square-foot, which is what most buildings were going for.”

 

Protecting the Past, Preparing for the Future

With Redd on board, the whole idea of ‘recycling’ the Palmer Auditorium took flight and Redd took to heart the fact that they needed to do so much more with people’s money during an economic downturn in the Austin economy. “I often say that I think that adversity is innovation in different clothes,” states Redd. “So these projects will evolve from a shift in the economic condition where we can’t audaciously scrape a lot and just build all new. We’re going to have to rethink how to use these buildings and look at projects that have much better economics.”

 

Redd worked with friend and architect Stan Haas, director of design for Nelsen Partners, to identify the potential reuse of the old Palmer Auditorium. “I really do believe in active reuse if it is a building of merit or some building of some degree of interest, sympathy or organically something the people can hold onto within the community,” explains Redd. “This one being the most of those because it was such a big gathering place for the people in Austin even with its dysfunctional design.”

 

Working with Haas, Zeidler Partnership Architects and theatre consultant Fisher Dachs Associates, Redd started from scratch to design two brand new theatres that would be embedded in the existing structure, the Michael & Susan Dell Hall with 2,400 seats and the more intimate Debra & Kevin Rollins Studio Theatre with 230 seats.

 

Redd identified three guiding principles that he pledged to the city of Austin, while he made his PowerPoint presentations to its citizens. First, he promised that the new Long Center would look like Austin, and maintain the whole mid-century architecture. “I grew up here, and care so much about Austin. I wanted this place to be our spiritual meeting place and to create this exquisite open space with a great view,” says Redd. “Austin cares a lot about maintaining this mid-century architecture here, and it was important to keep our identity.”

 

Potty parity was another of the guiding principles in which the redesign would have 67% more women’s facilities than men’s. And lastly, patrons needed to be able to see and hear it from every seat in the house, ensuring top-of-the line acoustics and uncompromising sightlines.

 

“In Dell Hall, we reused the stage house, which is probably one of the largest in the state of Texas,” proclaims Redd. “We’ve built the new building up against it, stripped it down and redid it. So it’s the same stage and it is very innovative how we did it. It has been a great source of interest from the architectural world and the green community.”

 

The old Palmer Auditorium was a dome that Redd likened to an upside down fishbowl. Rather than embark on the very expensive proposition of removing the circular ring beam, it was designated the main design element for the new Long Center. The glass from the Palmer’s exterior curtain was used to craft the panels that acknowledge donors, while the panels from the domed roof were used throughout the facility. “For the people who we called the dome-huggers, they could find the materials reused within the facility like the elevator,” chuckles Redd. “People could touch it and it became sort of a sculpture inside.”

 

The resulting redesign significantly cut costs and strengthened a commitment to sustainability with nearly 98% of the steel, concrete and dirt being reused at the Long Center or elsewhere. In addition to the savings, the Long Center is expected to increase downtown retail sales by $10 million and add an additional 250 jobs.

 

With the decreased spending, Redd knew that there was one particular place he did not want to scrimp when it came to getting the top of the line for the Long Center—acoustics. Redd contracted Mark Holden, principal JaffeHolden Acoustics, Inc., to work with the contractors and engineers to ensure that the acoustics were integrated with the building.

 

“I am so thankful to have the presence of mind to mind the acoustics,” recalls Redd. “It was one of our guiding principles, and Mark Holden is a hero. He really got what we needed and delivered on it. It was a great experience and the acoustics can be altered for each performance like a Stradivarius violin! Now the result is that we have probably one of the best acoustical halls in the country.”

 

Bonding with a Building

Redd and the Long Center team went to great lengths to communicate a story to the people of Austin that resonated to both the lifelong residents as well as the newer transplants. To the future, this facility showed fiduciary responsibility that protects the financial viability of the city. To the past, the Palmer Auditorium, where you graduated, got married or even saw your first concert, was still there, but just had a little makeover. And that began a story that Austin could really relate to.

 

“If the Long Center doesn’t mean something to you personally whoever you are in Austin, then I built the wrong place,” explains Redd. “The fact that we were not tearing it down, but that 98% of the old Palmer was in fact recycled or reused, that became the story that Austinites could love.” And the Long Center will continue to rely on the people of Austin, says Redd, “This is a love us now, love us later project. Our annual campaign is going to need people’s money to run this. We earn 70% on up to 75% for the first three years with smart programming, but we are always going to be out in the community asking for an annual fund.”

 

Operations

Leaving nothing to chance, Redd also worked on the softer side of the Long Center, with customer service skills that matched the performance capabilities. Modeled after the Four Seasons, patrons are showered with customer service at every interaction point.

 

“We live in a world of experience economy and it wouldn’t be good enough for this place just to have great art, but it had to be the whole experience,” notes Redd. “Austin is one of the most relational cities in the country and all about personal capital. I personally trained every person on staff. Our patrons need to feel valued.”

 

Paul Beutel, Managing Director of the Long Center, makes sure they also feel the value with the programming and brings in additional events as well as works with a collage of smaller, local arts groups. Beutel takes a very eclectic approach to programming drawing on his history in Austin and his tenure at the Paramount Theatre.

 

“My challenge in terms of programming additional events, called ‘Long Center Presents,’ is appealing to a variety of audiences in Austin,” says Beutel. “Part of the ongoing challenge is getting more people into the building. One-half of the audience for the first year has been for the resident companies—ballet, symphony and opera. We are continually reaching out to the community with programming and drawing people who haven’t necessarily been here before.”

 

And the last year hasn’t been all smooth sailing with a few hits and misses in programming and there was a perfect parking storm when multiple events converged on one weekend. But Redd admits that the close relations he forged with the City made the solutions easier to negotiate and navigate. “The project has had its fair share of U-turns that I couldn’t see,” chuckles Redd. “Fortunately, I have had the presence of mind to know that during a start-up, you have to see what you can’t see.” He prepared for the unexpected by raising additional money as well as reaching out to the community to seek support and to readily make himself available should issues arise.

 

The current economic conditions can be trying for a number of performing arts centers across the country. Redd said that they have raised one-half of their annual operating funds but are still working on raising the other one-half. “I think the bets are still out in a city where we ask the private citizenry to support [an arts center] at this level,” says Redd. “I think we’ll win at it because Austin loves to be different! I think our city government recognizes how important performing arts are economically and we’ve developed a good relationship. Hopefully, this will pave the way for a these kinds of buildings and define the kind of relationship the arts can have with the city governments.”

 

Austin has gained notice worldwide from architects, environmentalists, city planners and performing art center managers for the unveiling of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts. This unique facility is as much a testament to the environmentally-friendly way to reuse and recycle old buildings as it is in designing a perfect performance space that embraces a community’s past and present. All eyes remain focused on the Long Center as they just recently celebrated their first anniversary.

 

“And in the end, alls well that ends well in the story. You have to trust in the universe that we built the best building for Austin and it lead us in a very innovative way,” ponders Redd. “You know we’re called the Republic of Austin for a good reason because we just don’t do things like other people do in other parts of the country.”

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