The Varsity Theatre on Sherman Avenue, currently housing the Gap.

The eyes of City Council members appeared to fill with wonder as two dream projects were introduced at the March 8 Council meeting. Both projects – a rebuilt and expanded Robert Crown Center, and a renovation of the dormant Varsity Theatre into a performing arts center – excite both elected officials and the public. But their preliminary nature and the obstacles they face caution against overenthusiasm. For now, though, the City and Council can dream.

The Varsity Theatre concept came first that evening. Some of its remnants are still in the building on Sherman Avenue just north of Church Street that houses the Gap store.

At the March 8 Planning and Development Committee meeting, aldermen approved a staff request for authorization to seek matching funds from the National Endowment of the Arts for a feasibility study. City Superintendent of Recreation Robert Dorneker described the feasibility study as including market studies, a business plan, architectural designs and other plans for the complete conversion and renovation of the space. The City seeks $50,000 from the NEA which will be matched by $50,000 from the downtown TIF fund. Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson said that, if approved, the study would effectively cost the City nothing.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the City would seek additional grants to cover or defray the costs of the renovation itself after the completion of the study. She spoke with excitement about the “lovely” rococo ceiling, visible from certain angles through windows above the Gap.

“The property owner [Steve Rogin] is totally on board with the project,” said Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward. The Gap or a replacement store would remain on the first floor if the project goes through, she added. She praised the owner’s foresight in keeping much of the theatre intact when preparing the first floor for retail uses. “The only thing missing is the Varsity sign,” she said.

“I used to work [at the Varsity Theatre],” said Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, “as did my sisters.” The sisters worked as ticket-takers and popcorn sellers. “I was the only one who rose to ticket-seller,” she added. Ald. Rainey called an enthusiastic, “Aye!” before the vote had actually been called. The measure passed 5-0 in committee and on the consent agenda at the Council meeting.

The Robert Crown proposal came next. Doug Gaynor, Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, presented a 391-page Request for Qualifications (RFQ) seeking to prequalify developers (both “technically and financially,” Mr. Gaynor said) to design, build and operate an ice rink and community center within Robert Crown Park. The developer would fund and build the project without a financial contribution from the City; the City would retain title to the property. Mr. Gaynor emphasized that the new Crown Center will remain “a public facility and not a private facility.”

Staff also requested the appointment of three aldermen to join the project’s procurement selection subcommittee. The subcommittee, which will likely include members of the volunteer Playground and Recreation Board and City staff, will review RFQ responses as they arrive. At the suggestion of Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, Council members agreed the aldermen from the Second (Ald. Jean-Baptiste), Fourth (Ald. Wilson) and Ninth (Alderman Coleen Burrus) wards will be on the subcommittee.

Once developers have been prequalified, the City will submit a Request for Proposal (RFP) to each. The project design, scope and amenities will be determined after the RFP stage, and the RFQ purposely leaves significant flexibility. But possibilities include two ice rinks, space for a branch library, locker rooms, ball fields, community meeting rooms, and tennis courts (if the current courts cannot be preserved).

The search for qualified developers will be international, said Mr. Gaynor. “We fully expect Canada to be a place we can find some models,” added City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

“I look forward to reading the proposals as they come in,” said Ald. Burrus. Mr. Gaynor provided no time frame for the project’s inception.