By Anne Valente
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By RFT Staff
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How many consultants does it take to keep the Kiel Opera House closed? So far, three. The latest hired hands from afar were led by Theatre Projects Consultants Inc. out of Connecticut, just a short shuttle from Broadway. St. Louis 2004 signed the check this time, for about $100,000, though the study was "commissioned" by a 2004 task force made up of 12 representatives from area arts organizations.
The study, which weighs 2 pounds, 2 ounces and is seven-eighths of an inch thick, deals with numerous topics in its "St. Louis Cultural Arts Assessment," including designating a person to be an "arts champion," renovating the Medinah Temple on Olive Street to be a performing-arts cooperative and starting an "arts incubator" in the Grand Center area for young people and amateur artists.
One other recommendation in the nine-page executive summary is for the construction of a 1,200- to 1,800-seat theater in Grand Center for "opera, dance and theatre events." Omitted from the executive summary but included in the study is a nine-paragraph recommendation that concludes that "the arguments we have heard to restore the (Kiel) opera house simply do not justify the expenditure of funds needed to accomplish this major renovation."
Not addressed in the pages of the study is the fact that Kiel Center Partners (a group of Civic Progress member companies and owners of Kiel Center and the Blues hockey team) promised to reopen the Opera House as part of a city-subsidy deal for the Kiel Center arena.
This is the third study to make such a conclusion, the first being a 1996 analysis conducted by Fox Associates, owners of the Fox Theatre. That study pushed for other uses of the Opera House, at one point even suggesting that the Market Street facade could be kept but the interior transformed into a parking garage.
In July, a hit-and-run study -- commissioned jointly by the city of St. Louis and the Kiel Center Partners -- by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) stated that the Opera House's performance days were over but that it could be used as museum or a blues or jazz hall of fame.
Now comes another treatment, this time one that trumpets the importance of Grand Center -- loosely, the area just north of Lindell Boulevard along Grand Avenue, including the Fox Theatre and Powell Symphony Hall. The study was intended to make sweeping statements as well as specific recommendations about the local arts scene. To do that, St. Louis 2004 Vice President JoAnne LaSala says, Kiel Opera House had to be dealt with, even though the task force might want to address other matters.
"It was because it was the big elephant in the room," LaSala says. "We had to look at it. If we were going to look at arts facilities and we brought in such a high-quality team, we wanted their professional opinion on Kiel Opera House and its prospects for renovation as a performing-arts space. So they gave it to us."
Those pushing to reopen the Opera House smell another fix.
In the 1996 study by Fox Associates, it was a competitor, the Fox Theatre, assessing the worth of reopening a venue that would provide direct competition. With the ULI study, Kiel Center Partners and the city paid for the study, and the study didn't deal with the legal question of whether the Kiel Center Partners had a legal obligation to renovate the Opera House as part of the deal they made with the city to build the new Kiel Center.
LaSala has heard the suspicions before but denies them with regard to the study commissioned by the 2004 task force. Victor Gotesman, president of Theatre Projects Consultants Inc., was not given marching orders, she says.
"If you think we were looking for an answer, Victor can tell you we didn't say, 'Go look at the Kiel Opera House and come back and tell us we shouldn't work on it,'" LaSala says. "Frankly, I was hoping, completely, that they would come back with some magical solution that would solve a tough civic problem."
There are many generalities, details and ideas in the study but no magic, particularly when it comes to Kiel Opera House.
Gotesman thinks the Opera House, which opened in 1934, is a wonderful structure, but he doesn't think it's financially feasible to fix it up.
"Our assessment of the Kiel was not an in-depth look at 'this part of it is going to cost this much money and this part is going to cost this much money.' What we did was a brief estimate. Our brief estimate was that it would be cost-prohibitive compared to building a new facility in Grand Center. We thought that was a better investment for the community than renovating Kiel," Gotesman says.
That's not to say the Opera House couldn't be used for something else, says Gotesman. But for large-scale productions, it has a loading area with limited access that would make logistics a nightmare, and correcting that would be costly, he says.
"There are major, major limitations in that building, not the least of which are the Americans with Disabilities Act and code issues that exist today that didn't exist when the building was built," Gotesman says. "We understand there is a strong emotional attachment to Kiel in this community. We think something should be done with it. Our task was to determine if that could be a theater. We're saying no."