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Council gives nod to second phase of OC convention center

(Dec. 21,2012) City Council gave its approval this week to preliminary design plans for second phase of expansion at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center, slated to begin work after the end of the 2013 summer season.

The project, which entails the construction of an expanded theater and performance space in the center of the building, will be the second phase of a convention center overhaul that the city has been planning for some time. The first phase – the construction of a bayview ballroom on the second floor – was done this year.

The theater design was done under the purview of Becker Morgan, the Salisbury-based architectural and engineering firm that the city tapped in July to head the project after its successful work on the ballroom.

For the theater, Becker Morgan employed the services of Chris Elcock, and architect with GWWO Group of Baltimore, for the conceptual design work. Most notably, Elcock told City Council this week, he has worked with the city’s Cultural Arts Advisory Council to settle on a “drifting sand” design for the theater’s considerable wall space.

“You’ll notice that the walls begin to have this gentle undulation, which would set up the borders of the house,” Elcock said. The pattern would entail the use of cutout sections, shaped like waves of windswept sand, to be mounted on the east and west walls and possibly backlit.

Elcock also designed a sweeping, semi-vaulted ceiling piece to be nearest the balcony-level seating, “which helps to focus the guests’ attention on the proscenium arch [the stage opening].”

As the city had previously specified, the space will hold nearly 1,200 visitors, with 850 seats on the ground level and over 300 in the balcony. The theater will be oriented north-south, with the stage itself on the southern border of what is now the convention center’s central hall ‘C.’

“We’re working in what was formerly Hall C on the first floor, and some of Halls One and Two on the upper levels,” Elcock said.

The space will also feature removable seating in the front rows, making room for an orchestra pit if needed, and allowing for a less tight setup towards the rear of the facility.

“I know we picked up a lot of back of the house space, and the orchestra pit [with the modular seating],” said CAAC member and Planning Commissioner Peck Miller.

Councilman Dennis Dare, who had been city manager when much of the convention center expansion was originally conceived, asked if it was still possible to have an east-side lobby and stage entrance that could be sealed off from the rest of the center, allowing for independent uses.

Becker Morgan partner Ron Morgan explained that this was not practical, as the shape of the pre-existing space mean that the “dominant access will be from the north,” off of the center’s main access hallway.

However, Morgan noted, the balcony level seating will be accessible from both the convention center’s second floor concourse and also via stairways that are inside the theater space. This means that balcony-level guests can enter the theater in the same way as orchestra-level guests, allowing the second floor convention halls to be used without interference.

“There’s a lot of internal circulation, inside the auditorium by itself,” Miller said.

The theater expansion project was guaranteed financially this July, when the Maryland Stadium Authority agreed to meet the city’s conditions for a continued state-city partnership in an expanded facility. Namely, the state agreed to pick up $5.7 of the $14 million dollar project, as well as re-commit to its half-stake operational lease of the convention center for another 20 years, and also pass legislation allowing the city to borrow against its own 0.5 percent food tax to fund capital improvements in advance.

Convention Center Director Larry Noccolino said the project is expected to take 14-16 months, beginning next fall and ending in the early winter of 2014.

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