Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Historic District Commission Approves College Arts Complex, with Provisions

By Christina Georgiou

A sketch of the most recent rendering of Lafayette College's planned
visual arts complex, next to the Williams Center for the Arts building, seen
shaded in gray on the left, on the corner of North Third and Snyder
streets at the base of College Hill.
Members of the Historic District Commission narrowly voted to approve plans for Lafayette College's new arts buildings on North Third Street Monday evening with the provision that the plans include specified changes to the design.

The board voted 4-3 in favor of the approval, with board chair Robert Jacobs and members Gary Ringhoff and Clay Mitman, who endorsed the plans as presented, dissenting.

The three said they favored approving Lafayette's plan as it was presented Monday evening, and were similarly defeated in a vote to allow them to go forward without modification.

The slim majority, William Dohe, Scott Voelker, Karen Johnson, and  chief city codes administrator Cindy Cawley, said both the public's reaction to the building as planned, along with concerns the design isn't in keeping with Easton's zoning ordinances prompted them to insist on changes.

At issue is the placement of the complex, which is set back from the property line edge, a canted wall that overhangs the pedestrian sidewalk on its west side along North Third Street, round support columns that HDC members said are not in keeping with the hard geometry of the rest of the design, and the overall scale of the black box theater building with the rest of the buildings on the street.

David Zaiser, partner of KSS Architects, explains features
of Lafayette College's new visual arts complex to Easton
Historic District Commission members Monday evening.
David Zaiser, partner with KSS Architects, said those aspects of the new arts complex are part of its ultra-modern design and changing them would undermine what the building is attempting to accomplish visually.

"It is an urban thing. It may not be an old urban thing, but it will be a new urban thing," he said.

But the four HDC members said it's not the modernity of the design that's the issue--it's that aspects of the design don't fit with the surrounding neighborhood.

"I still very much believe the appropriate solution is the build-to line on North Third and also Snyder (Street), and I don't think the building does that yet," Dohe said, adding that plan to set the building back from the streetscape has more of a suburban rather than urban feel.

Zaiser said the plan as presented is in keeping with the setback of the former Case's Tire building, which the college is set to demolish to make way for the new structures.

"It's not a good precedent," Dohe said. "I don't think Case's would be approved today in the historic district...It seems to me to be very clear that the zoning ordinance says build to the build-to line, and that's not happening here. I think you're going to need a zoning variance (to do that) anyway."

Some modifications requested by the HDC were made since last month, Zaiser said, noting that the choice of terra cotta tiles set to encase the building and brick on the lower support columns has been changed at the board's request to make the building more uniform in color, though the college still wants some variation to symbolically denote the building's use.

"It's a film media center," Zaiser said of the panels of colored terra cotta that will adorn 24 panels on its facade. "The idea is 24 frames per second. What we're showing here is the differences between the colors of the terra cotta. The integrated lettering plays off of the light as well."

While the commission accepted the facade changes, they still don't compensate for other issues with the design, said Voelker.

"You're trying to make it look closer to the property line," he said. "I think the round (support) column is out of its element, since everything else is squared."

Zaiser said the intent is to make the building look lighter, even like it's floating, to reduce the visual mass of the structure.

"I'm trying to make it look lifted up," he said.

"But that's how it should read," Dohe said, noting that the "floating" look will disconnect the structure from the sidewalk and pedestrians. "That's is exactly opposite of what the overlay district is about...These buildings should related to the context of the historic district (that way)...And these buildings don't do that at all."

Members also objected to the wall on the North Third Street side of the theatre building, which is depicted as slanting over the sidewalk.

But Mitman, Ringhoff, and Jacobs said they feel the matter has been discussed long enough.

"We've seen many, many renditions," Mitman said. "I'm fine with what I see."

Ringhoff said he likes the ultramodern look of the plans.

"This is definitely eye-popping to me," he said. "It's fine as far as I'm concerned. Quite frankly, I'm getting tired of sitting here and discussing it."

Johnson and Cawley said the building plans need to be discussed as long as there are still issues with the design.

"People aren't liking this, and I have a responsibility to the public at large," Johnson said. "The comment I'm hearing is, 'please don't let this happen.'"

She said members of the public have told her they feel its contemporary look clashes with the surrounding buildings and that it has too much "mass" and has a heavy feel. She added that the comments have come from a variety of people with differing backgrounds and of differing age groups.

Christine Ussler, who serves as a non-voting consultant to the HDC questioned the purpose of the canted wall.

"I'd like to know if that's aesthetic or a functional choice," she said, adding that she's happier with the building's appearance since the number of colors in the terra cotta facade were reduced.

"I think the surface treatment has come a long way, and it's a lot better than it was," she said.

Zaiser said the slanted wall serves both functional and aesthetic purposes.

"Tipping it out gave it the feeling of a marquee. It is a theatre," he said, adding that the design would otherwise be "too boxy". The tilt also leaves space inside the building for speakers, which are about 16 inches deep, he said.

Cawley suggested the speakers might be recessed in the building wall, instead of tilting the entire plane, since they aren't very large.

"I just don't like that cantilever," she said.

Dohe agreed.

"I do appreciate modern architecture and design, but I think it needs to be appropriate to its environment," he said.

"I've drawn this thing a million times, and it isn't going to work squared up," Zaiser said.

Ringhoff said that regardless of whether the wall is straight or canted, it will be impossible to please everyone.

"The public's still not going to like it," he said.

While the commission ultimately voted to approve the plans with the specified changes--making the west wall vertical, aligning the buildings with the build-to line, and changing the support pillars to a squared or trapezoidal shape--Jacobs encouraged Lafayette College representatives to submit the plan to city council for approval without the changes.

"I'd like to remind you we're only an advisory board, and you can still take it to the next step as is," he said.

It is unclear at this point whether the college intends to make the recommended changes or submit the plan to city council as is, as Lafayette College Vice President of Finance and Administration Mitchell Wein and Director of Facilities Mary Wilford-Hunt left immediately following the hearing without comment.

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