Kennedy Center officials have abandoned their plan to build a wharf-like performance space on the Potomac River and instead will construct three land-based pavilions with a pedestrian bridge that connects the new spaces to the riverfront.
The redesign was unveiled at Thursday’s monthly meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission. The changes will increase the cost of the $100 million project that was designed by Steven Holl Architects and was expected to begin construction in March.
Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter wouldn’t say how much the changes would cost, but she said it will delay the opening about 15 months, to September 2018.
Many years in the making, the expansion will add 60,000-square feet of classroom, rehearsal and performance space and a cafe. It was unveiled at a ceremonial groundbreaking in December, but then immediately delayed when NCPC members failed to grant preliminary approval to the pavilion on the water because of potential environmental issues and the concerns of the boating community.
The resulting discussions led arts center officials to reconsider their design.
“All the discussion pushed us further, pushed us to come up with something better,” Rutter said. “This might be a better design than what we had in the first place.”
The new version moves the performance space and cafe from the water to the four sloping acres on the south side of the Edward Durell Stone-designed building.
“It has a stronger relationship to the [new] buildings, and it’s still on the river,” architect Chris McVoy said. The new spaces will have views of the Potomac and of a reflecting pool and garden.
The expansion will include one large space that can be configured as a cafe or a 160-seat theater, or a combination of the two. It will be enclosed, and thus available year-round, McVoy noted. It will have a wall of windows facing the river and a retractable wall on its eastern side that can open up to a reflecting pool and landscaping.
The space also will have a lower level, which will improve its function, McVoy said. It will be connected underground with the other two pavilions, allowing for easier patron access and for staff needs, such as moving restaurant supplies, pianos or sound equipment.
A new and shorter pedestrian bridge will extend over Rock Creek Parkway to the trails along the river, connecting the arts center to the water and to trails that reach Georgetown and the Lincoln Memorial. Rutter said this connection remains vital to the project’s mission of being open and welcoming to the community.
“With the new spaces, we intend to develop more thoughtful and intimate relationships with artists and patrons,” Rutter said. “Most importantly, we want to connect with our community.”
The arts center hopes to gain the necessary approvals from NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts in the next few months. Reaction from the NCPC members suggests this is likely.
“I’m delighted to see these revisions,” Commissioner Beth White said.
Commissioner Peter May also welcomed the changes. “It is really an incredible result that we wind up with something that is in many ways a better design,” he said. “Its relationship to the river is different and, in some ways, enhanced.”
May also praised the Kennedy Center’s willingness to go back to the drawing board after the commission raised concerns.
“The typical kind of reaction we’d see is to prove the doubters wrong and to force the project through,” May said. “They took the opportunity to look at what they’re doing and ask, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ I’m very pleased with where we are.”
Rutter said arts center officials expect construction to begin in the fall.
The original plan was to open the space on May 29, 2017, the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth. The delay of the likely opening until 2018 is disappointing, Rutter said. “But I’d rather wait a year and have it be done right.”