Nobody knows what will happen next with Stage Center. The debate over its fate, started soon after it flooding forced its closure in 2010, is likely to go through one last gasp before the theater’s fate is decided once and for all, likely later this year.
I’m truly unbiased when it comes to Stage Center. I appreciate its importance in the world of architecture. I appreciate how it added diversity to downtown. I appreciate the role it played in our arts community.
But I’ve talked to several folks in the arts community who had the responsibility of staging performances in Stage Center. And all of them say it was horribly dysfunctional.
That, however, is history. Advocates note it could be renovated to become a functional asset for our city. Sure, it was renovated back in the early 1990s. But back then those overseeing the renovation were walking on egg shells trying not to violate the design and intent of Johansen. His approval was key.
Johansen died last year, and his family blessed an attempt by a group hoping to convert it into a children’s museum to make some serious alterations.
That effort came closes to capturing public support, even excited some folks with money, but ultimately, it went no where.
The preservation and architectural communities were given a shot – a very brief shot – at finding someone to buy Stage Center and renovate it. That effort failed to result in any rescuers.
So that leads us to the next question for those wanting to save Stage Center, and this is a sincere, open ended question: let’s say a reprieve is won through downtown design review. What’s next? Is there any hope of finding someone to buy the theater and pay for renovations?
Or is the intent to keep Stage Center boarded up until a rescuer can be found? And if so, is that the best outcome? And how long does this wait go on? A year? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? Who will pay for maintaining what is left, securing it and keeping the grass mowed during this indefinite wait?
Is Stage Center worth a public bail-out? Will architects and preservationists want to start an initiative petition to get a sales tax passed to fund a city buy-out and renovation of the theater? And if so, why wasn’t this attempted two years ago when it was first clear that the landmark was in jeopardy?
Here’s my final question: what does Stage Center say about Oklahoma City? Why is it important to the city?
Why is Stage Center important? Is it important because it was designed by John Johansen? Is that the most important reason for saving Stage Center? And if so, is a tribute to the man, however accomplished he may have been, reason enough to leave it intact even if no one with money wants to save it, and those with means would rather build a high-rise tower in its place?
Finally, just one more question: if it’s all about what is the highest and best use, is an office tower (likely to be built a bit higher than the 20-story minimum disclosed by developer Rainey Williams), that higher and best use?