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A theatre for Chester: why the Odeon conversion is a poor choice

At the end of 2011 the Council chose the Odeon as the site of the new theatre.  When the Council chose the Odeon as the option, the Latham / Gibson / Woods theatre option was disregarded. As with any major decision, a number of factors had to be taken into consideration. These being finance, feasibility and, in this instance, a third party.

Financially, the Odeon option is blue-sky thinking.  The projected cost is £43.4million. That is £5.4million over the theatre project budget of £38million.  In fact the Councillors are after an Arts Council grant of £5.million (The Chronicle 02.02.12) to make up the difference between the budget of £38.million and the projected cost of the Odeon option at £43.4.million This means that the Council is seriously considering embarking on a project that isn’t fully funded.  There is a very good chance that the cost of this Odeon conversion project could spiral hopelessly out of control and we could end up with nothing.

By contrast, the Latham / Gibson / Woods theatre option is actually priced at £25 million.  Well within the £38million budget.

The Council must have had a good reason to ignore this salient point.

A second factor which needs to be taken into consideration is the sheer feasibility of the project, the actual sizes of the buildings under discussion.

In any theatre the auditorium is 30% of the total size.  Then the social space has to be an equal 30%, plus a little bit more for a bar, bar staff, tables, chairs, and general ‘milling’ space.  The remaining 30%+ comprises backstage, theatre mechanics, dressing rooms, administration offices and front of house.

By contrast the auditorium in a cinema is 90% of the total size. There is no social space.  There is no backstage, there are no dressing rooms or theatre mechanics.  The remaining 10% houses the ticket  office, concessions, projection mechanics and administration.

It has always been accepted that the Odeon is too small for this theatre project.  But realistically, It won’t have to just double in size, it will have to triple in size.  This is one of the reasons why the Latham / Gibson / Woods project should have been the preferable option.

James Latham (architect) has liaised with Ken Martin (architect) who has already designed and built a theatre, the Floral Pavilion at New Brighton.  Ken Martin has drawn the plans – the actual to-scale plans, not an artist’s sketchy impression – which has encompassed all the specifications for the new theatre that the Council insisted upon.

The proposed Latham / Gibson / Woods building would reach from Princess Street to Hunter Street behind the library, with entrances on both streets and through the library to the Market Square.  Ken Martin did not have to try to “ find more space “, he designed the theatre the right size to begin with.

Having three major entrances on three different streets also means that, from a health and safety aspect, emergency vehicles and personnel can access the building from all four sides.  (Whilst there is no formal public entrance in the back wall, there would be working entrances and stage doors.)

However, on the positive side, the grade II listed Odeon building has been saved.  This was the objective of the Save the Odeon Action Group. The Council now owns it.  Although to save the Odeon building and not restore it as an art deco cinema does seem a trifle perverse.  The artist’s impression of this projected theatre option shows the Odeon as just one side of a totally different looking building.  The indication being that, having ‘saved’ it, the intention has been to chop it up anyway.

A further point to be taken into consideration is that the Council has recently expressed a wish to have a multi-screen cinema. When last in use the Odeon was a multi-screen cinema.  Or does the Council mean it wants to build a new one?  A bit pointless and profligate when there already is one in the Council’s possession.

It would seem obvious to have proceeded with the Latham / Gibson / Woods option of an 800-seat main stage, plus studio, purpose built theatre, behind the library, with entrances on Princess Street, Hunter Street and Market Square (known to the newcomers as Town Hall Square).   At £25 million, well within the budget.

The Odeon could then have been renovated as a cinema, which is what it was, at, say, £5million, although that is probably a bit excessive.  That would then have given Chester a purpose built theatre, an enhanced library and a multi-screen cinema for under the projected budget of £38million.

The Council must have had good reasons to have ignored all these aspects.

The final factor impacting on the 2011 Odeon theatre site decision was the Council’s partnership with ING.   This ING partnership was purported to be a reason why the Council couldn’t choose the Latham / Gibson / Woods theatre option.

However, for the past 12+ years ING had done nothing except change the composition of the projected Northgate Development a number of times.

In February 2012 the Council split from ING. With the Council’s separation from ING the obstacle preventing the Council from accepting the Latham / Gibson / Woods theatre option has been removed.  The dynamics have now shifted.

We are in a recession.  Families are losing benefits. Cestrian taxpayers are the people who are going to pay for this theatre development.  It seems pointless to squander £43.4+million on a cobbled together job, not fully funded, which may, or may not come to fruition, particularly when there is a far better option.

The Latham / Gibson / Woods theatre option is based on sound research, architect’s plans, professional expertise and experience. The Latham / Gibson / Woods option is real.   It is planned, viable, affordable and deliverable.   This option will work.

This was the option the Councillors chose to disregard.  They must have had pertinent reasons.  There is still time for the Councillors to change their minds.

 

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