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Democrat Photo by Ted Waddell

JOANNE HAGUE OF the Woodstock Preservation Alliance (WPA) read a statement to the town planning board on behalf of the Woodstock preservationists.

The Proposed Bethel PAC:
Culture or Counterculture?

By Ted Waddell
KAUNEONGA LAKE — March 12, 2004 – The Gerry Foundation released architectural renderings of its drastically scaled-down plans for the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music & Arts Fair at Tuesday’s Town of Bethel Planning Board meeting.
At the hearing, the standing-room-only crowd was about equally divided between officials pitching a revised plan to the board, local folks interested in the goings-on around town and people who believe the site they view as “sacred” should be left alone or developed/promoted with sensitivity toward its unspoiled nature.
As plans to build a local arts center evolved in the wake of a couple of “Days in the Garden” and Ben & Jerry’s “One World, One Heart” concert (cancelled due to poor ticket sales), site owner Alan Gerry put in motion plans to build a $46 million performing arts center project, funded by the Gerry Foundation but including more than $15 million in governmental support.
The Town of Bethel created a Performing Arts Center (PAC) Development District in December 2002 as the first sanctioned step in the process.
The Gerry Foundation owns all but approximately 20 acres in the town-approved 634-acre PAC District. The remaining area represents privately-owned holdings within the district.
In addition, Gerry reportedly owns an equivalent amount of property outside the district as a protective buffer to the arts center complex.
At Tuesday’s public hearing, the Gerry Foundation sought a special use permit that would allow construction to commence with a ground-breaking this summer.
If all goes as planned, Bethel Woods would open in 2006 with a performance by the renowned New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
As originally proposed, the Core Building Complex (CBC) of four structures would comprise 395,000 square feet, a complex constructed on the plateau overlooking the site of the original festival.
At the public planning board hearing, Jonathan Drapkin, executive director of the Gerry Foundation, unveiled plans that would reduce the size of the structures’ footprint by about 90 percent: from 390,000 square feet to approximately 40,000 square feet.
The first phase of the construction would include a 4,000-seat covered pavilion, an interpretive center and a museum to tell the Woodstock story, permanent open-air farm market buildings modeled after the large peaked tents that have become trademarks of the annual harvest festivals, and parking and infrastructure.
Planned for the next construction phase is a 650-seat community theatre, formal concert hall, music school and conference center.
According to Drapkin, most of the proposed retail space was slashed from the project.
“The bowl area will remain open and free of structures,” he said. “There will be much less impact on the site. . . . We tried to minimalize the impact on the site.”
In an effort to clarify public perceptions related to projected seating capacities at the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center, Drapkin explained that the pavilion is designed for a seating capacity of 4,000 under cover of the structure.
An additional maximum seating capacity of 12,000 will be available on the lawn in front of the pavilion complex, although the Gerry Foundation expects average attendance (based on industry research) to be anywhere from 3,000-7,000 people per event.
The supporting infrastructure has a seating capacity of 7,000 of the above-noted total 16,000 seats.
“The permanent infrastructure – bathrooms, concessions, parking – supports a crowd of 7,000 at the pavilion,” said Drapkin.
“It’s important for people to understand that we sized everything for 7,000,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t accommodate a crowd of up to 16,000 in the pavilion if we have to,” explaining that seating capacity at the arts complex was designed to expand and/or contract depending upon the size of the event.
“Based on industry attendance projections, we sized the permanent fixtures for approximately 7,000 people [4,000 in the pavilion, plus 3,000 on the lawn] . . . but the lawn can accept up to 12,000,” said Drapkin.
“We monitor Pollstar Magazine for attendance figures at concerts,” he added. “While there are a couple of acts out there that will draw in excess of 10,000 during the summer, when you look at an average Bob Dylan event, it’s between 3,000 and 5,000.”
Drapkin said the scaled-back version of the PAC took the four structures originally planned for the site and combined them into a single structure of three attached components (to be constructed during a subsequent phase of the building project), including an “event lobby that can basically serve on its own for a lecture, about 300 people on folding chairs listening to a musician or a community event – an open space of approximately 4,500 square feet” and attached to it on one side is the interpretive center, “the place where we’re going to tell the story of Woodstock and the period in which the concert appeared in.”
On the other side is a 650-seat permanent theater “with very high-level acoustics.”
“This is an unprecedented cultural offering to the community,” added Drapkin. “We want a very natural, comfortable relationship with the land . . . sympathetic to a natural landscape.”
Paul Westlake, the managing principal of the architectural firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky of Cleveland, showed representative drawings of what the PAC will look like once completed: buildings featuring native stone foundations, gabled rooflines and tons of wood.
“Both in color, scale and shape, they should blend in with the rural landscape,” he said.
But while Drapkin stressed “the magic that was created at the Woodstock concert remains a very special part of our project,” several in the audience wondered if the magic was rapidly disappearing down a corporate rabbit hole.
In calling for limited public comments, town planning board chairman Herman Bressler was perceived by some as attempting to squelch anti-development opinions.
Before limiting speakers to five-minute slots, he said, “So many people want to talk, we’ll be here until one o’clock in the morning.”
On the positive side, Jeffersonville resident and Woodstock persona Duke Devlin opined, “I came here in ‘69 and never left. . . . I think the idea for a performing arts center is great.”
While Bressler turned thumbs-down to presentations of pre-recorded statements, he gave the the nod to three speakers who offered lengthy comments on behalf of organizations opposed to unrestricted development of the 1969 concert site.
Speaking on behalf of the Woodstock Preservation Alliance (WPA), Joanne Hague of Blakely, Pa. said, “We, the Woodstock Preservationists, have pleaded for reason from the Gerry Foundation for what seems years. . . . We see the original Woodstock site as a unique national and global treasure that deserves better than to be built upon and fenced in.”
Taking the position of “fence it, build on it, destroy it,” Hague said ideas presented by her group of “preservationists” have been well received by the National Historic Trust and the NYS Historical Preservation Office, but “unfortunately, it has been a struggle to be taken seriously by the very group that holds the fate of the Woodstock site and the future of the Town of Bethel.
“We have faced discouragement that the callousness and exploitive capitalism of modern America is about to take away one more piece of irreplaceable global history . . . while the development plans continue to reflect fatal errors in the placement of buildings on the Woodstock site,” she said of proposals to build part of the performing arts center complex on Max Yasgur’s old farm field.
Melissa LaPointe of Quebec, Canada presented a letter written by Dr. Michael Doyle of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
After he was hired by an environmental planning firm retained by the Gerry Foundation to prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), Doyle said he came to the conclusion “that the site was of major significance on the local, state and national, even international, levels.”
While lauding the Gerry Foundation’s decision to reduce the footprint of the CBC by approximately 90 percent, “the fact remains that the CBC will still intrude into the viewshed from the festival stage area. . . . I urge the Gerry Foundation to reconsider its plan and remove the CBC from this vicinity.
“It is a staple of good preservation planning that no new permanent structures should be erected within unaided eyesight of a historic site where alternate locations may be found within a reasonable distance,” he added.
“I think the concept of the proposed Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center is sound,” continued Doyle. “If done in the most sensitive fashion, their project can preserve a site of major historical importance while contributing to sorely needed economic development of Sullivan County.”
Martie Malaker of Scranton, Pa. read a statement on behalf of Brad Littleproud of Pickering, Ontario.
While cautioning against “the risk of creating a white elephant,” Littleproud said, “I can appreciate the pressure that is on the Gerry Foundation to break ground and get this project rolling from a community that is looking to this venue as a catalyst for economic recovery.
“I find myself questioning your thought process and rationale for the choices you have made. . . . We preservationists have warned you that development on that 38 acres will destroy the magic of the Woodstock legend,” he said. “If this town does not do anything to put itself forward, you will just have a bunch of buildings and a hill like anywhere else.
“You are at a crossroads now,” added Littleproud, by way of addressing the planning board. “The fate of the community is in the hands of very few, and what you decide and what the outcomes are will be forever associated with you – far beyond your time in this world.”
Taking a firm stance at keeping the public meeting as short as possible, Bressler nixed the idea of listening to a recorded statement from Artie Kornfeld, “The Father of Woodstock,” and one of the original festival’s promoters.
“I want to preserve the Woodstock Nation,” he said in an excerpt from a transcript of the recording. “Keep the buildings off the original 38 acres. It’s gonna take away the magic.”
A little bit closer to home, local singer/songwriter and Woodstock activist Clint Partridge of Bethel had a few words to say about the performing arts center.
“You have purchased a world historical site,” he told representatives of the Gerry Foundation. “I ask you to preserve its integrity and actualize its enormous potential for growth. Have the courage to create a unique center where music and arts illuminate the path of peace, so the lives of all who visit will be enriched. Then the people will come.”
But before the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center goes up, Partridge said he’d like to see a couple of amenities added to the grounds where a small monument records the festival’s place in world history.
“Please build someplace to get a drink of water and a place where folks can take a pee,” he said.
Oliver King of Kauneonga Lake had an even more practical concern: what about the jobs?
That answer may be a long time in coming, but the Gerry Foundation must have all its relevant materials in to the planning board by March 29. The next planning board meeting where the PAC is expected to be on the agenda is April 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the senior center in Kauneonga Lake.

Contributed Illustration

THIS ARCHITECT’S DRAWING of the proposed performing arts center near the Woodstock site in Bethel was unveiled Tuesday at a planning board hearing about the Gerry Foundation’s revised plans.

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