With architect in place, downtown arts project passes a huge milestone

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With architect in place, downtown arts project passes a huge milestone

Published on February 28 2011


Architect Don Schmitt has designed concert halls and arts centres around the world, from Montreal to Washington to Russia, but he has never seen an opportunity like the hillside setting he will work with in downtown St. Catharines.

Over the next three years, the renowned Canadian firm Diamond and Schmitt Architects will turn an old textile mill and the ruins of some demolished storefronts into a $94-million performing arts complex that will culturally and economically transform the Niagara Region’s largest urban centre.

On a 4.5-acre site that runs from busy St. Paul Street down into an urban valley, Schmitt’s design will incorporate a series of concert, dance, film and rehearsal halls, as well as the new home of Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

He says the combination of topography, history, heritage and location is an extremely rare set of threads for an architect to use.

“The possibilities are amazingly powerful,” said Schmitt this week. “The potential is to make an extraordinary place for creative activity on this amazing site. It’s going to be a unique place, not only for the community but for the whole Niagara Region, in a way that no other downtown revitalization project has been able to do in Ontario.”

The complex is actually two complementary projects created side by side: the multiple-venue St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre at the top of the hill; and nestled below, the Walker School, which will relocate 500 students and faculty from Brock’s main campus into the city centre.

In the span of four days this week, St. Catharines City Council and Brock University’s Board of Trustees chose Diamond and Schmitt to design both of the projects.

The federal and provincial governments are jointly providing $36 million for the $54-million Performing Arts Centre, while the Ontario government is contributing $26.2 million to the Walker School, which has a construction budget of $39.6 million. To cover its infrastructure and programming costs, the University will need to raise about $20 million through its Campaign for a Bold New Brock.

Design work will start immediately. For the City’s project, Diamond and Schmitt will attend at least two rounds of public open houses at the schematic and detailed design phases, where architects will collect feedback and, when feasible, incorporate it into the final design. The firm will make a public presentation of the design once it is complete.

The City has also established a User Group Committee of representatives from the local arts community, who will be engaged throughout the design process to provide the architect with insights on design and operational requirements from a user’s perspective.

Mayor Brian McMullan said public input is crucial. “We understand the importance of the project, not just for the future of downtown St. Catharines, but for the performers who will call the centre home and the audiences it will attract,” he said. “For these reasons we encourage our residents to share their thoughts and opinions with the architect as part of the design process.”

The Walker School, based in the 19th-century heritage building that housed the Canada Hair Cloth Company, will have more than 100,000 square feet of space, including a 250-300 seat dramatic arts theatre.

University officials hailed the choice of Diamond and Schmitt. “We are delighted,” said President Jack Lightstone. “We had 34 world-class responses to our initial request for expressions of interest, and there was solid consensus by the selection committee on our final selection.”

Douglas Kneale, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, said Diamond and Schmitt represent an outstanding educational opportunity for students. “Their vision will provide state-of-the-art facilities to foster innovative, creative convergences for our students in dramatic arts, music, and visual arts,” said Kneale.

Construction for the overall project is expected to begin by early 2012, with occupancy scheduled for early 2014.