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Mill Race amphitheater presentation wows council

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City officials will hire a Cleveland architect on an interim, hourly basis to continue redesign work on the Custer-Nugent Amphitheater in Mill Race Park.

Columbus city councilmen said they were impressed with a presentation Tuesday from Peter Rutti, a principal with Westlake Reed Leskosky, who talked about the firm’s proposed revamp of the amphitheater.

As part of the agreement, councilmen want the architects to lead public information sessions so area residents can give input about the amphitheater proposal.

Feedback from those sessions would be considered before final plans are drawn up.

“Everything I’ve seen here, I think this is really exciting for the community,” city councilman Ryan Brand said.

When Rutti was asked about a timeline to get the project underway, councilman Frank Miller suggested, “the sooner the better.”

The city agreed to negotiate an hourly rate for the architect’s contract.

An amphitheater steering committee, made up of local businesspeople, residents and arts supporters, has been working on plans to renovate the amphitheater since April 2013.

Amphitheater renovations are much needed, said Jayne Farber, a steering committee member who also served as a consultant on the project until her July 1 retirement.

The venue was built in 1993 using a design by architect Stanley Saitowitz. Since then, Farber said, there have been no major enhancements or any extensive maintenance to the structure.

The park is located in a designated flood area, and the amphitheater is directly in the floodway. During flooding, the amphitheater’s dressing rooms and electrical panels are damaged by mud and water.

The amphitheater is exposed to the elements and also is built in a way that cannot always adequately handle performers’ stage equipment, Farber said.

When the rock group REO Speedwagon performed last August, a concert stage had to be built away from the amphitheater to avoid problems.

And during big events, such as Rock the Park or the Our Hospice benefit concert, the crowd is positioned on the lawn to accommodate more spectators because amphitheater seating is limited to about 450. The bigger concerts have drawn audiences in excess of 7,000. But the lawn seating puts more distance between the audience and the artist because the ground where the crowd assembles is lower on the lawn side.

The committee chose to recommend Westlake Reed Leskosky as the architect for the project based on the flexibility and creativity of the firm’s design.

Before coming up with a proposal, the architects consulted with a national company that books outdoor concert venues around the country about what kind of features an outdoor amphitheater would need to accommodate touring artists, Rutti said. They also consulted with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the firm behind the construction of Mill Race Park.

Those companies emphasized flexibility would be crucial to a community amphitheater. The park amphitheater’s proximity to downtown Columbus offers great potential for the future, Rutti told the council.

The Westlake Reed Leskosky proposal calls for demolishing the current stage to construct a new, wider stage that would sit farther back, opening an additional 240 seats that could be reserved for VIPs. The conceptual designs also call for a canopy over the audience in the mound and side curtains on the stage, both of which could be retracted depending on weather and the needs of the performance.

The designs also call for a performers pavilion to be built near the stage, where entertainers could have a space to prepare. The pavilion would include areas for dressing rooms, catering prep, production and a green room. The firm’s conceptual design for the pavilion allows for multiple uses, including an orchestra performance, a musical act, a rock concert with multiple acts, an outdoor wedding reception or a graduation ceremony.

The architects had three different cost options for the project, ranging from $3 million to $4.3 million, depending on how much work is done to the structure and what performance equipment is included.

Work to make the Westlake Reed Leskosky designs a reality could take as long as two years to complete, according to the architects, including time for design, bidding and construction. But that time frame, Rutti told council members, is flexible.

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