Paramount looks to expand

Published 12:31 pm Saturday, September 19, 2009

When the Paramount Theatre was completed in 1929, architects and construction workers likely weren’t thinking about handicap-accessible bathrooms, spacious dressing rooms and an alternate route to backstage.

Today, however, these are all much more prominent concerns — which is why people with the historic theater want to expand.

Talk of an expansion has floated around for a number of years — and no exact timetable is in place — but theater operations manager Scott Anderson said he wanted to begin looking more seriously at options.

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“Ultimately, we want to do this expansion,” Anderson said. “(And) we want to do it right.”

However, much is left to be figured out before a shovel breaks the ground.

Going east … or west?

Anderson said he knows he wants to expand to the north behind the Paramount — the most recent blueprint of the proposed expansion has a new space for dressing rooms and a stage shop stretching 40 feet past the current back wall.

However, plans are much less clear for a side expansion.

The idea is to create a corridor that will provide access to backstage, house a few bathrooms and showcase art from the Austin Area Art Group.

But it’s still up in the air whether that corridor would be to the east — where there is open land but a potential problem with some underground pipes — or to the west, where a deal would have to be struck with Austin parks and recreation to buy their building.

Each option has its pros and cons, which will be weighed and analyzed, Anderson said.

Going east would of course not displace anyone, but the storm sewer and sanitary pipes would have to move — which could cost the theater roughly $35,000.

However, there is a possibility that the city will move the pipes anyway with nearby jail and justice center construction, which would take away any financial burden on the Paramount.

Pipe dream?

City engineer Jon Erichson said he doesn’t know the likelihood of the pipes moving but does know they can’t simply be bulldozed.

“These pipes serve a purpose, and that purpose is not going away,” he said.

A westward expansion would not run into a pipes problem, and new construction would be minimal, but the Paramount would have to strike a deal.

At a Sept. 1 meeting, the parks and recreation board heard a presentation on the possible expansion, and director Kim Underwood said she’d consider a deal.

That potential deal would likely involve an arrangement where the two share the space — both could have offices, an art gallery could go in and the current bathrooms could remain.

However, the current parks and recreation space isn’t suitable for public use, Underwood said, because of all the various “stuff” laying out.

And if parks and recreation did decide to move, they wouldn’t do so only to accommodate the Paramount, the director said.

“This is a great location,” Underwood said. “The deal would have to benefit us, too.”

Anderson said he originally thought going west would be best, but nothing is finalized in his mind.

“Is it necessarily the best way to do it? We always thought it would be cheaper,” he said. “But who knows? It might not be.”

OK, but what about flooding?

Dealing with going east or west will be one thing, but expansion to the north could bring up numerous flood issues.

The existing building is not considered to be in the floodplain, but the expansion very well could be, which would mean new construction would have to go a foot above the “flood protection elevation” — a height that differs from location to location, Erichson said.

An analysis would need to be done at the Paramount to figure out specifics, but Anderson said dealing with this regulation could add a “new wrinkle” to his plans.

Of course, the operations manager wants to be very careful of flooding — high water in 2004 caused a “very close call,” Anderson said.

That year, when Austin suffered record flooding, some last-minute sandbagging and pumping saved the theater from having water rush the stage and seating area, but damage was done in the basement.

Still more


The Paramount is on the National Register of Historic Places — quite an honor for a small-town theater, but also something that comes into play during construction.

Anderson is well aware that any work done should respect the historic significance of the building, and if he needs guidance, there are federal standards recommended for projects at historic sites.

In addition, the Paramount would have to get permission from the Minnesota Historical Society before doing any work because of agreements worked into two past grants.

And that’s just on the historical side of things — Anderson said he is also working to comply with American Disabilities Act standards and become more handicap accessible.

Currently, the building’s only bathrooms are downstairs, and people unable to get down there have to go next door to use the bathrooms at the parks and recreation building. There is also no real handicap access to the stage, Anderson said.

Alejandro Miyar, a spokesman for the ADA, said no legal action has been taken to date against the Paramount because of this, but noted that buildings built before the act went into effect in 1992 should have “readily achievable” plans to become compliant.

All in all, a lot to be done

Anderson knows much work remains — when planning is completed and all issues resolved, the theater would still have to figure out how to raise funds for the project, something that hasn’t been thought about much at all yet.

But all the time, sweat and money that could be poured into an expansion would be worth it for Anderson.

He grew up with the theater — as a boy, he said he went to shows at least weekly at the “atmospheric” venue.

“I just loved coming here,” Anderson said. “The creativity is just so cool.”

Hard work

In the past 20 years, he and his wife, city council member Janet Anderson, have worked tirelessly to revitalize the landmark, restoring a number of original features and once again making it a viable theater.

So, it’s only natural that Scott Anderson is now focused on an expansion that he and others at the theater have called “of Paramount importance.”