"Jaws will drop": Live Arts lands in new digs

Thirty-five thousand concrete blocks. Four million dollars. Five years of dreams. That, says Live Arts artistic director John Gibson, is what it took to bring the new Live Arts space– dubbed the City Center for Contemporary Arts– from inception to reality.

This weekend, the public will get its first chance to peek inside the building, which has been under construction for 18 months, at a grand opening for Live Arts, as well as Second Street Gallery and Light House, the other non-profit arts groups that will coexist in the 27,000-foot, four-floor facility.

Gibson says he's hoping jaws will drop.

"This building," he says, "is the one that tips the balance for Water Street with its own identity, streetscape, and distinct personality from the Downtown Mall."

With its modern boxy forms, sheet-metal siding, and bold swaths of purple and yellow paint, the building stands out against a sea of red brick.

But Joan Fenton, chair of the City's Board of Architectural Review, says it's perfectly in keeping with the BAR's standards.

"If you're doing a new building," Fenton explains, "you can try to design anything you want."

In fact, starting from scratch is often easier than renovation of an already existing structure in a "design district" like downtown. With renovations or additions, any exterior changes must not appear to be a part of the original building, something that seems counterintuitive, but which the BAR believes preserves historic integrity.

Fenton cites the recent additions to the Wachovia and Timberlakes buildings on the Downtown Mall as particularly successful renovations.

For new construction, the BAR offers "much greater flexibility," Fenton says. The building "shouldn't overpower the neighboring buildings and should be compatible with the streetscape." Fenton cites the CCCA's proximity to the equally large Jefferson Theater, located just next door.

Gibson, too, notes that proximity: "This is the first time in the history of this city that two theaters have existed next door to each other." That, combined with the planned reopening of the nearly 1,000-seat Paramount Theater, Gibson believes, will "nail Downtown Charlottesville as an entertainment destination for Central Virginia."

Of The Paramount, a theater whose renovation cost is at least thrice the price of this new structure, Gibson is clear: "There is zero competition between the two projects."

Gabe Silverman, Live Arts' former landlord at its 609 Market Street location, agrees with Gibson that downtown is becoming an arts mecca. And though he could be griping about losing a major, longtime tenant, Silverman has nothing but praise for Live Arts' decision to move.

"I think it's dynamite," he says, adding that he hopes to lease the old Live Arts space to a trio of local musicians for a performance space and late-night eatery. He calls the new building, designed by Bushman Dreyfus Architects, "amazing."

On a recent tour through the space, Gibson's enthusiasm for Live Arts' new home is palpable.

"I think people just aren't going to believe it!" he gushes, making his way up a back stairway.

At the front of the building, a shared first-floor lobby offers immediate access to all three organizations. A grand staircase that will eventually provide access to second, third, and fourth floors, will not be constructed until sometime in November.

Second Street Gallery, despite moving for the third time, remains on a street name Second (this time it moved from Second Street, NW to Second Street SE), with a light-filled ground floor gallery at the corner and a smaller, windowless, space for shows requiring special lighting. The move neatly coincides with the Gallery's 30th anniversary celebration and exhibit, says Gallery director Leah Stoddard.

Of the three organizations, Light House will occupy the smallest area, a workshop space with a wall large enough for projections.

Live Arts takes the lion's share of the space, and Gibson says the main theater called the UpStage– provided the basis for the entire building's design.

Although the UpStage has the same footprint as the old theater approximately 40'X40'– Gibson says the differences cannot be overstated.

With two levels of seating and a soaring 30-foot ceiling, the new theater will be able to accommodate 200 patrons, a 50 percent increase over the original space. And even more important, Gibson says, there are "no obstructed sightlines" from any seat in the house. (Columns in the former space blocked the view of portions of the stage from certain seats.) A custom-built and moveable catwalk bridge will assist with lighting and provide an extra stage towering above the audience for certain productions.

Gibson, who claims to have seen much of his competition on various travels, is not shy with superlatives. "I believe," he says, "this is the finest small theater in the world."

A second smaller theater what used to be called the Live Arts Lab space and is now referred to as DownStage sits toward the rear of the building, and Gibson says the soundproofing including "floating floors"– in both theaters should prevent any noise crossover when two shows coincide.

"You could have a drum festival in here," he promises, without anyone in the larger theater hearing a rat-a-tat.

As final occupancy permits were issued earlier this week and finishing touches were applied, Gibson and crew were busy preparing for the weekend's festivities, which include performances, refreshments, and shows at all three organizations. But even when the building opens, the work won't be done. Fundraising for the project is not yet complete; roughly a half-million dollars is still needed in order to finish things like the planned rooftop garden.

Gibson, however, says he's not worried.

"When people see just how excellent and just how visionary this building is," he says, "fundraising will be a different degree of difficulty."

Bottom-line watchers of the new arts building opted for zinc siding instead of the originally planned titanium alloy.