What do you do when business parks go out of style?

Build a performance arts centre!

Only partly kidding. We get steamrolled by these trends, right? Business parks, starchitect museums, extravagant waterfronts, pedestrian malls, sports arenas, loft conversions... These tactics have worked tremendously well (for "growth" if not urbanity) in some situations, but catching hold of an inspiring idea does not give us permission to stop thinking. And yet the allure of the mega-project can knock us off our feet. We silence our reservations and say go big or go home! We bring in a speaker from that city where it did work and write op-eds proclaiming "We can be like [Brisbane, Austin, Vancouver, etc.] if only we dream big enough."  

I love that enthusiasm and vision. When it comes to headliner projects, the go big or go home argument is likely true to some extent as well. But what happens when every city is going big on the same projects such that they become unremarkable, unmarketable, and unsustainable? What is the reward for going big at that point?

I have no doubt that performance arts centres (PACs) have transformed communities in a positive way and I'm not trying to slam that. If your city built a PAC and it worked and has a beautiful life ahead, that delights me. However, we're seeing PACs get sucked into that hype-machine where everyone seems to need one bigger and better than the last. I'm having a hard time understanding how we can sign off on the kind of big bucks we're throwing after projects that have no plan to ever break even.

It's uncomfortable to be critical of these things when you swim in circles that likewise support artists and cultural activities. But here's my question: is this even an effective, value-for-money way to support artists and stimulate cultural development? PACs are supposed to be places of creativity, but at this point they are a tired and uncreative idea. Consider that locally, we're looking at a $40-million price tag. If we want creative ideas to support the arts community, I bet handing over a fraction of that money straight to artists and saying, "Here. Go transform the city. Save your receipts." would leave us with more remarkable outcomes. But of course, the system trusts consultants and professional PAC builders more than the artists that we rely on to activate the space.

And that's what this comes down to: thinking, being creative, chaotic but smart. Sadly, I sense PACs have been stuffed into the growing suite of orderly but dumb solutions. Imagine if we had to throw away the instruction manual on how to become a "world-class city" and instead demanded of each other to just think. Imagine if we looked at our constraints (people, cash, geography, climate, culture) and then decided to work within them, creatively. That's what has always made places interesting and remarkable. Venice, for goodness sake!

Little city wants a building that inspires

A few posts back, I mentioned the curious case of The Fredericton Playhouse. Here's what I wrote then.

An initial rendering of one option for the new Fredericton Playhouse. Click for more info.

An initial rendering of one option for the new Fredericton Playhouse. Click for more info.

The Playhouse (built 1960) is being scheduled for expansion. It seats 709 people now and they are looking to add a 850-seat mainstage. The proposal suggests tearing down the old building and developing a new complex around the corner for $40-million.

The consultants deemed it unfeasible to reuse the existing Playhouse.

"A multi-million dollar renovation would not only come short of meeting the needs and goals of the region, but would substantially reduce the Playhouse's capacity by the time current building codes for life safety and accessibility are met," states a news release announcing the study's findings. - CBC News

[...] I wouldn't consider myself resistant to change but we've got a good old thing going on with The Playhouse. Nothing built recently has given me any confidence that the replacement will be an improvement. I'll be looking into this case because it does not add up from where I'm standing.

Well, I have been looking into the case and I'm not the only one. My partner, Ryan, is exceedingly clever and enjoys making data and numbers understandable. He has also suffered through years of me yakking about urban issues and has cultivated quite an interest in such matters himself. This year, he launched an organization (Citizens Code) for people like him who have technical skills that they can apply to issues of public importance. Case in point, The Playhouse.

Ryan meets with a number of Citizens Coders every week to use their skills to shed light or new commentary on confusing issues. Lately, we've all been working on a Citizens' Guide to The Playhouse. The team is combing through the dense consulting reports and financial statements and speaking to people involved with the decision to understand where they are coming from. I'm helping contextualize this local proposal within the broader trend of Performance Arts Centres as a shiny object.

None of us feel like we have the answer for the future of The Playhouse - we're just letting our research filter out the questions that citizens should be asking. My big ones right now are why do we think this is an appropriate investment, and how could we use a smaller budget more creatively?

On another note, it's fun to work on a team research project that isn't being graded or due tomorrow. Highly recommend it!

A PAC of similar scale as our local project, done by the same architects. This one is in St. Catharine's, Ontario. http://newpac.ca/

A PAC of similar scale as our local project, done by the same architects. This one is in St. Catharine's, Ontario. http://newpac.ca/

Let me see your PAC!

Since mega-project Performance Arts Centres are a relatively new trend, published studies on PAC value-creation are in short supply. This means I've got some primary research to do and could use your experience to point me toward case studies. Could we do a mini Strong Towns Study right here? It may require a bit of Googling on your behalf and I thank you in advance for being a sleuth. Let's collect as much insight as possible on how PACs have been established in other cities.

Please tell me about your Performance Arts Centre in the comments:

  • Where do you live?
  • Do you have a Performance Arts Centre build or under consideration?
  • What's the price tag?
  • Who is pays for it (fixed and operating costs)?
  • Who built it?
  • Who convinced your city it was necessary? What was the reason they offered?
  • Where does public opinion stand on the situation?
  • Is there a news article or blog post that you feel sums up your local PAC situation? Please link.
  • If possible, attach an image.

Thank you so much as always!

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.