A big hurdle has been cleared for one of the more ambitious projects in Mobile arts history. The Azalea City Center for the Arts’ (ACCA) new facility at Dauphin Street and Sage Avenue earned a recommendation after a Feb. 6 Mobile City Planning Commission meeting.
The site uses six of 27 acres on the old Graf Dairy Farm, which is now surrounded by parks and homes in midtown. ACCA Director Chris Paragone was upbeat about his path forward, clutching the recommendation letter like a lottery ticket.
“Me, the architect and the engineer all talked for five minutes each,” Paragone said. “When the opposition came up, the lady said she thought it would be ‘the best thing for the neighborhood.’”
The “opposition” in Paragone’s synopsis wasn’t so much resistant as highly cautious. Residents of the adjacent Cromwell Place subdivision previously endured a high-profile fight against plans for a car wash on the site. Attorney and municipal judge Rose McPhillips led safeguarding efforts for the residents.
“I wasn’t opposed to the art center; I was opposed to the fact they went to a B-2 business zoning,” McPhillips said. The fear was the zoning could open the door for something more calamitous should ACCA’s plans fall through.
“We wanted a restriction on it, on things the neighborhood found offensive: drive-thru restaurants, outside speakers. Not opposed in principle but in theory, in the way it’s written. We wanted them to pull it and rewrite it so there’s a use restriction,” McPhillips said.
After conferring and revamping ACCA’s efforts, both sides reached an agreement.
Both parties also mentioned an AltaPointe Health System facility planned for 10 acres on the far side of the ACCA property.
“I heard they are moving adult treatment and combining it with youth treatment,” McPhillips said.
As for ACCA’s usage and zoning agreement with Cromwell Place, Paragone outlined the agreed-upon plan. It won’t change until summer.
“Come July 5, we will enter into escrow. We’ll take it before the City Council and already have the money in escrow. They’ll do the rezoning and take the money and it’s ours,” Paragone said.
He has made the rounds among a handful of cultural entities — Mobile Opera, Mobile Ballet and Mobile Theatre Guild, most notably — in need of more suitable facilities. Special-needs dance troupe Dance Without Limits is in mind, too. Enthusiastic personnel from all these organizations are quoted in capital campaign material Paragone handed over.
According to engineering and architectural plans unfurled across a table, the extensive center would suit them all. Its 500-seat theater is designed to adjust to 250 seats to avoid seeming empty. Its stage is 102 feet wide — 16-foot wings included — and 72 feet from the lip of the stage to the back wall, with two back curtain lines between.
An adjacent, 150-seat black box theater has its own lobby, storage and dressing rooms. There’s an extensive scenery shop, a selection of rehearsal and classroom spaces for what promises to be a veritable beehive of cultural activity.
Initial parking plans were adjusted in order to save a group of older oak trees. An entrance will meet Dauphin about where the columns for the driveway to the old Graf home currently stand. Different access points will be used according to whether drivers were dropping off kids for classes and rehearsals or whether they were there to attend performances.
“The parking meets the minimum requirements for the city for a 500-seat theater. Very, very rarely, if ever, would you have the theater and the black box running at the same time,” Paragone said.
Various sponsorship levels are spelled out. For instance, donors at the Producer level ($3.5 million) would have the main facility named after them, among numerous perks. The Director level ($1 million to $3.49 million) would land their names on the theater. It moves down through six other levels, as low as $10,000.
Paragone’s enlisted out-of-town outfit Catapult Fundraising to devise a plan for the $13 million estimate. He said that includes a 5 percent overrun.
“[Catapult] is in the middle of a feasibility study right now. They’ve collected 120 names of people associated with local arts entities, patrons and personnel, to start interviewing them,” Paragone said.
His target is to have the facility up and running in two years. If needed, he might entertain building in phases.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what I need,” Paragone said. “Right now, what I need is people to get talking about what a great thing this is going to be for all these organizations.”
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