Civic Center would become a premier public park that could host major outdoor concerts and festivals under a plan laid out by Scottsdale Arts CEO Gerd Wuestemann.
But to make his vision a reality, voters ultimately will have to approve a bond issue covering a variety of capital projects.
The Civic Center renovation project would cost $27.3 million, according to a council subcommittee’s documents. It is currently listed as the top-priority on the list of unfunded projects being considered for a potential bond election this year.
If approved, the renovated Civic Center would become the largest park-type space in the city, connecting the two sides of campus dissected by the Drinkwater Bridge.
“Having to remove a lot of the elements off the top of the bridge, the idea of this being a special event venue became even more apparent and clear when you see the cleared area, how big it is and what a great opportunity the city has to really reconstruct this as we come out of the bridge repair to be an amazing event,” said Karen Churchard, tourism and events director for the City of Scottsdale.
This project is intended to create one united plaza, which was the intention when the Civic Center was being built in 1976, Wuestemann said.
And that’s why the closing and subsequent repair work on the Drinkwater Bridge and Underpass that began last December – while maybe seen by some as an inconvenience – is the “best thing that’s ever happened” for the city, Wuestemann told City Council’s Capital Improvement Plan Subcommittee on Jan. 31.
According to the project report prepared by Phoenix-based architecture firm Holly Street Studio Architects last summer, the Civic Center renovation project would “create a more desirable and useful center for community activity, including an ‘event-ready’ venue that will allow the destination to be competitive in attracting large-scale tourism events.”
Simply put, this overhaul of the Civic Center would reactive the space, with an iconic stage structure and amphitheater – one that could accommodate approximately 3,500 patrons – at the heart of the project.
The outdoor stage would be located above the Drinkwater Boulevard tunnel.
Other elements include a children’s garden, shade canopies throughout, enhanced pedestrian access, an outdoor and performance lawn, an outdoor eating area, a look-out space and terrace, and modified water features.
“It would work very much like a park when it’s not in use but allows us 100 times or so per year to put on iconic performance on the stage and engage the entire community on this square,” Wuestemann said.
Other possible events held at the space include major outdoor concerts, arts festivals and culinary festivals.
“Except in the years immediately following that, we put all these things up on top, in the middle, that cut it in half again,” he said. “You could never see how much space there is, and you couldn’t connect the Bennie Gonzales buildings that were designed to really talk to each other.”
The goal is to complete the project by Fall 2022 – in time for the campus to host the Super Bowl Fan Zone in 2023.
By that time, the city would also complete renovations – inside the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, or SCPA, and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, or SMoCA.
Churchard said this project will greatly impact tourism for the city, as one of the biggest challenges the city faces involves lack of public space for special events.
“To have a bigger venue and more open space for events to happen at the mall, that would be phenomenal for tourism and for our downtown or Old Town area as our merchants are very favorable to special events,” Churchard said.
She added, “They're not so favorable when they impact their day-to-day business. In other words, they're not as favorable to closing down streets to have festivals and events right out on Main Street, for example.”
According to Director of Community Affairs for Experience Scottsdale, Stephanie Pressler, the renovations will reboot Civic Center as the city’s epicenter.
"Though the park already hosts special events throughout the year, from Scottsdale Arts Festival to Scottsdale Culinary Festival, renovations would make Scottsdale Civic Center even more desirable for event planners, helping attract large-scale tourism events that can be enjoyed by residents and tourists alike,” she said.
Research for the Civic Center reconstruction project began in 2015.
Last summer, Wuestemann held a two-day visioning session with acoustics and theatrical design experts, Russell C. Todd of Akustiks and David Rosenburg of Theater Project Consultants.
Todd and Rosenburg have been involved in projects such as Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl renovations, both in Los Angeles.
The design concept report for the Civic Center renovation was completed and published last summer as well.
Members of the City of Scottsdale, Scottsdale Arts, including Wuestemann, Holly Street Studio Architects, structural engineers Caruso Turley Scott and construction company Haydon Building Corp were all present for a meeting held last summer.
During their discussion, concerns regarding the bridge’s ability to support the stage were addressed.
“While the bridge is being repaired is a great time to have this conversation about what happens next,” Wuestemann said, adding:
“This project presented a unique opportunity because while the bridge is under construction, we can make sure that we strengthen it enough to put something on top. We want to make sure that, structurally, it is done so it can hold it.”
Recommendations made at the summer discussion included involving artists during the design process, improving water conservation and addressing evening lighting to ensure the Civic Center is a night-time destination as well. There also were recommendations to use durable materials to support the foot traffic of up to 130,000 people, and consider relocating the restroom at Drinkwater Bridge as it is considered a structural concern.
“If we get this right and build this iconic structure, it would really refocus everybody on downtown Scottsdale and really reenergize this whole Old Town city center,” Wuestemann said.
“Communities usually have the wisdom to invest in things that we need to address, the things that need fixing, the things that need to be managed, but we also want to invest in the things that move us forward, that make us competitive, that help us grow, that bring us together,” he said. “And I think this would be the hallmark project that could represent that.”
In addition to the Civic Center overhaul, Wuestemann is also considering revitalizing and renovating SCPA, SMoCA and the Center for the Arts parking garage.
At SCPA, the Stage 2 theater would be modeled after the New Orleans Jazz Museum 3rd floor Performing Arts Center and developed into an intimate “live” amplified music venue for approximately 100 to 150 patrons.
The visioning study also states that the existing SCPA atrium has the potential to be developed into a new performance venue – a sound-isolated, multi-disciplinary space that would embrace visual and performance art.
There also was a suggestion to transform the Drinkwater Bridge with creative lighting or a moving graphic design into a “gateway” or “front door” to the campus.
“We thought maybe this Drinkwater tunnel could even become a marquee for this whole project and upcoming shows,” Wuestemann said.
As for the Center for the Arts parking garage, upgrades would be made in the design, structure, signage and branding as well as the arrival and access portals between the garage and the SCPA campus.
Another idea, inspired by Post Alley at Pike Place Market in Seattle, was to create a speakeasy alley between the garage and the campus to attract the community.
Other possible renovations include acoustical upgrades in the Virginia G. Piper Theater.
Wuestemann said a SMoCA expansion could be in the cards, as well, but no further details were revealed.
“We haven’t come to this lightly,” he said. “We really tried to think about all the aspects of if we set this in motion, what it could mean for the rest of the campus and what are the pieces that need to come together to make this really successful long-term.”
If the Civic Center project is approved, Wuestemann said Scottsdale Arts’ will begin capital campaigning for the aforementioned campus improvements.
“The [Civic Center] will generate so much excitement that we will be able to really attract new people to look at this campus and say Scottsdale is about to really invest in its cultural assets,” he said.
Wuestemann said construction at the Civic Center would begin in 2020 and completed in one year and a half if it gets the funding.
And once the project is completed, the center would provide all the back-of-the-house functions, load-in, dressing rooms and catering functions one would need to operate a large venue.
“All these pieces can and should work together,” he said. “It’s the most cost-effective, most successful, promising way to build this out, and it creates enormous opportunity for all of our community.”