RTM 'ovation' seals approval for Levitt Pavilion renovation plan
After years of planning, a new Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts is set to go into production next month.
The Representative Town Meeting, by a 28-3 vote Tuesday night, approved a $1.1 million town appropriation for the pavilion's renovation, paving the way for construction to start next month on a project estimated to cost $6.7 million.
"The timing is right for the Levitt," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, a supporter of the pavilion's overhaul. "It's an exciting design. This is going to be iconic. It's going take advantage of the beauty of Westport and the river, so it's a good deal."
Renovation of the Levitt Pavilion, which stands on town property on the east bank of the Saugatuck River, is one of the cornerstone capital projects planned in downtown Westport during the next five years. While the town would appropriate $1.1 million for the pavilion project, the remainder will be funded mostly by private donations, according to a proposal by Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit organization that helps to raise funds for pavilion operations.
The $1.1 allocation constitutes one of the largest town outlays for a capital project during the last 10 years. Reflecting the significance of that fiscal commitment, RTM members and audience members passionately debated the town's role in the pavilion's renovation.
"I think it is to the benefit of us right now and to people in the future that we follow through on that vision that we've had on what makes this a community that is culturally significant, that is a fun place to be, that offers free cultural opportunities," said Velma Heller, District 9.
Other RTM members, however, were more wary of the town's fiscal involvement in construction of a new Levitt Pavilion.
"We need to use the $1.1 million on other things, and to keep the taxes from going up anymore, in order to keep our population able to afford to live here," said Cornelia Olsen, District 1.
The project has also aroused concerns about the potential environmental risks of building on a site that was once used as a municipal landfill.
"I consider it a toxic time bomb," said Michael Gilbertie, a former RTM member. "My feeling is that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to come to Westport and say, `You're going to have to take that (waste) out of here.' ... I wouldn't want to see the town put in something that down the road is either going to be taken away or redone again to a much larger cost."
But many town residents have argued in recent weeks at town hall meetings that the venue's importance to the local economy and cultural vibrancy warrants the town's investment in the pavilion's renovation.
"It's an incredible town resource," said Miggs Burroughs, a well-known Westport artist. "The town without it would be worse off."
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, also expressed his support for the town's appropriation for the new pavilion.
"We have the opportunity to support an institution that has done well by our community and is as integral to our community as the playhouse or the library," he said. "How could we even seriously contemplate not helping them get there?"
Steve Rubin, the Republican nominee who will face Steinberg in the Nov. 6 election and an RTM member, voted in favor of the town's $1.1 million allocation.
Designed by Westport-based architect Peter Cadoux, the new pavilion complex will include a stage under a tensile roof, a covered entry pavilion with restrooms, a food concession and hospitality terrace, a new lawn seating area and an extended riverwalk around the site.
To prepare for the new pavilion, the site's original bandshell was taken down in 2007 and replaced by a temporary stage.
The town's $1.1 million appropriation will include a $100,000 allocation to a special account to be used only for insurance and contingencies related to building work at the pavilion grounds.
Renovation plans for the pavilion have already been approved by town boards such as the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Friends of the Levitt has raised about $4.2 million through a combination of gifts in hand, commitments and grants. The nonprofit also reports that it has access to a line of credit to cover the balance of yet-to-be raised funds, allowing construction to move ahead while fundraising continues.
Construction of the new pavilion is scheduled to finish in time for the venue to open for the 2013 summer season.
Friends of the Levitt Pavilion will pay for any cost overruns incurred during construction, according to the group's legal counsel, Ken Bernhard. If the pavilion renovation comes in under budget, the remaining funds will go into an annuity to help pay for maintenance and other pavilion expenses, he added.
The town spends between $40,000 and $50,000 each year on the pavilion, including costs for maintenance, programming and a stipend for the pavilion's executive director, according to Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy. After the pavilion's renovation, the town will spend between $45,000 and $55,000 annually on the site, he said.
To monitor the pavilion site during construction, the town will hire the environmental and civil engineering consulting firm Leggette, Brashears and Graham, McCarthy told the RTM.
"We're going to be out there any time there's any below-grade work going on," LBG engineer Paul Jobmann told the RTM. "We don't anticipate that there are going to be any environmental concerns." The town has also required the pavilion's construction contractor to carry an environmental insurance policy to protect the town from any possible liability related to building work on the landfill.
"The town is protected to the extent possible with our insurance," McCarthy said.
Shortly after McCarthy spoke, the RTM voted to support the town's $1.1 million appropriation for the Levitt Pavilion's renovation. Olsen; Lou Mall, District 2; and Jay Keenan, District 2, cast the dissenting votes.
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