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Replacing the Playhouse offers an exciting opportunity for our community

by on April 25, 2017
Photo by Stephen MacGillivray Photography & Videowww.atwphoto.com

Extensive technical reviews have found the Fredericton Playhouse is in fair to poor condition. 

Over the past months, there have been a number of announcements and news stories about a new regional performing arts centre to replace the existing Fredericton Playhouse and better serve our community.

This project, lead by Fredericton Playhouse Inc. in partnership with the City of Fredericton, is a large, complex undertaking, which reasonably raises a number of questions and prompts a healthy community conversation about the future of cultural infrastructure and its role in addressing broader economic development, cultural development, and quality of life goals and aspirations shared in our region.

The origin of the new performing arts centre project goes back over decade, when our organization began learning about the end-of-life reality that our building faces. Understandably, many people have questions about the state of the building, and wonder what exactly is wrong with it. For a more in-depth answer, I would encourage you to visit the Playhouse’s YouTube page, where you’ll find a video titled “Looking Inside the Fredericton Playhouse.” For now, I’ll provide a general overview of the issues with the facility.

Since 2005, the Playhouse and the City of Fredericton have commissioned a number of studies to try to extend the 53-year-old building’s life for future generations. Unfortunately, all of these extensive technical reviews revealed that most of the facility is in fair to poor condition.

Most of the issues are not visible from a cursory glance at the exterior or the public interiors, and Playhouse management has worked hard to keep the building safe and looking relatively good. That’s because the problems lie in systems and components that are not easily visible or accessible, such as HVAC, electrical and structural issues.

To offer a few specific examples, the Playhouse is incredibly energy inefficient, using 2.6 times more energy than a comparable building. The building has no insulation and has outdated mechanical systems, making it difficult to heat and cool the building. Additionally, the electrical system needs to be completely replaced, as some parts are more than 50 years old.

It’s also important to note that the costs of maintaining the Playhouse as a safe and functional venue continue to escalate. More and more public and private funding, earned income and other resources are being directed toward building maintenance each year.

Of course, when Fredericton Playhouse Inc. was first informed about these serious problems, we explored the possibility of refurbishing the building. What we learned was that, at best, a refurbishment would extend the facility’s life for about 30 years, yet it would cost $12.3 million, and we would need to make many updates to meet current building codes.

Life-safety, fire protection, egress and accessibility requirements would necessitate major changes; elevators would be required to reach the balcony, exits with fire separation would need to be added from all areas of the auditorium, and fire protection such as sprinklers would be required. The studies we’ve conducted have found that these changes would cause a dramatic loss to our current seating capacity (from 709 to 463), effectively taking us backward rather than forward in meeting the needs of the community, never mind expanding our potential impact.

We also considered whether it was feasible to expand the current building beyond its current land envelope, to maintain seating while still meeting life-safety and other codes. But at a cost of $19.2 million, this option would still fail to meet the needs of our community, and would leave us without improved infrastructure for future generations.

Ultimately, taking all of this information into consideration, the City of Fredericton and Fredericton Playhouse Inc. determined that a new regional performing arts centre is the best option to replace the existing Playhouse. This option presents an exciting opportunity. This new 72,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility will have two major performance venues: an 850-seat main hall and a 300-seat flexible performance space with shared lobbies, amenities and backstage functions.

I know many people are curious about what will happen to the existing Playhouse and the land it occupies once it’s replaced, and that’s a concern that the City of Fredericton will address in the months ahead. For now, all we know for certain is that the building would be decommissioned. Fredericton City Council will consider a number of options before determining what to do with the land. We believe that there are certainly opportunities for this important site to serve the broader public interests.

Arriving at the decision that the Fredericton Playhouse must be replaced has been a difficult one for our organization, but we also see so much potential for our community in the new performing arts centre. We find ourselves in the position to turn the challenge of losing the Playhouse into an exciting opportunity to move forward in a meaningful way.

Greg MacFarlane is the Vice-President of Fredericton Playhouse Inc.’s Board of Directors.  

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