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State court hears testimony about Chautauqua Institution Ampitheater

February 11, 2016
By A.J. Rao ( , Westfield Republican

Are safety, accessibility and performance upgrades to the Chautauqua Institution's Amphitheater a worthy endeavor? Or do they compromise the historical significance of the renowned 122-year-old structure?

On Monday, four individuals intimately familiar with these questions testified in State Supreme Court, describing in detail how much - or how little - the proposed Amp project will alter the existing structure and its surrounding area.

The lawsuit's petitioners - the Committee to Preserve the Historic Chautauqua Amphitheater and five property owners at Chautauqua Institution- insist the alterations are not only too severe, but that the institution itself failed to comply with two local ordinances: the Waterfront Consistency Law and the State Environmental Review Act. As a result, they argue, the Amp project is inconsistent with the preservation of historical resources and the protection of the environment, respectively.

The respondents - the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, the code enforcement officer for the town of Chautauqua and Chautauqua Town Board -believe the Amp project is exempt from these ordinances because it does not destroy the character of the Amp or move it to another location. Rather, it enhances safety and handicap-accessibility, seating, lighting, staging and the audience experience - all while honoring the look and feel of the original structure.

Buffalo attorney Arthur Giacalone, who represents the petitioners, called Peter Flynn to the stand. Flynn, a Buffalo architect who specializes in historic structures, was part of a six-member Historic Preservation Panel put together by the institution.

Notably, Flynn told the court Monday that the project did not fall into one of four approaches to the treatment of historic properties as outlined by the U.S. Department of the Interior - preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction.

According to Flynn, the project calls for the removal and replacement of the current Amp structure, which runs contrary to the Interior Department's definition of "preservation" that focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing structures. "Restoration," he continued, involves making a structure resemble a particular period in history and removing evidence of other periods, while "reconstruction" involves recreating a structure that currently doesn't exist anymore.

"Rehabilitation," which is the need to alter a historic property to meet continuing needs while retaining its historic character, comes close to the institution's objective. But according to Flynn, when the structure is removed, its historic character is removed as well.

Giacalone referred to a report by the Historic Preservation Panel that stated that "the key is to repair rather than replace and to replace in kind when necessary." To replace "in kind," according to Giacalone, is to have a new structure with a similar size, footprint and function to the original structure.

Flynn said the Amp project fails to do all three.

"The structure that is being proposed is a larger structure," Flynn said. "It covers a wider space, it's deeper and its size is significantly more (than the original structure)."

The square-footage of the proposed Amp will reportedly increase from approximately 42,000 square feet to approximately 62,000 square feet. Total seating capacity will increase from 400-500 to 800-900.

Flynn said the function of the structure includes its historic authenticity; or in other words, the existing Amp is tied to the historic events that took place inside of it. Removing and replacing the structure would compromise its historic authenticity, he said.

Buffalo attorney Richard Moore, who represents the respondents, called three individuals to testify: Robert Jeffrey, a member of the Chautauqua Institution's board of trustees and owner of two real estate companies that specialize in historic preservation; Deborah Moore, vice president and director of programming at the institution; and John Shedd, an architect and director of operations at the institution.

Jeffrey described how the renewed Amp will improve programming and visitor experience, ensuring the long-term viability of the Amp.

He countered the notion that the institution has an "open checkbook," and can afford delays in construction. In fact, he said, much of the philanthropic donations to the project are tied to this specific project.

"(If the timeline or project is affected,) we could lose those donors," Jeffrey said.

Moore further highlighted the deficiencies of the current Amp and why a revamping is important. She pointed to the lack of space backstage for performers, the lack of safe access to the stage for transporting equipment and an orchestra pit which sits at the same level as the front-row audience, blocking people's views and overwhelming the sound of a performance on stage.

She also said that performances, which are evolving and becoming more elaborate, require a bigger stage and better lighting to give audiences a more worthwhile experience.

Shedd warned that the schedule for the Amp project is tight and that the institution is already absorbing costs of contractors waiting to get the green light.

"If we can't start construction by the end of February, we could be in serious trouble," he said.

Sedita said the next court session will be Thursday at 1 p.m., where he will determine whether a court-imposed restraining order on the Amp project will continue or whether a preliminary injunction, in which any and all construction involving the Amp will be halted for the duration of the lawsuit, is imposed.



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