Marilyn J. Walker School of Performing Arts under construction in St. Catharines, Ontario. Architectural rendering, courtesy Diamond and Schmitt Architects
New pedestrian bridge to St. Charles Street, downtown St. Catharines. On the right buildings are supported on stilts. Photo: CCE/BP
St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre under construction. Architectural rendering courtesy Diamond and Schmitt Architects.
The downtown of St. Catharines in the Niagara Region of southwest Ontario is undergoing a transformation. The topography and architecture of the town of approximately 130,000 people is already unusual. St. Paul’s, the main street, curves around a ridge above a valley that originally held the Welland Canal and which now has Highway 406 running through it. The land drops down so sharply from the street that the backs of the 19th and early 20th century buildings have to be propped up on high wooden stilts.
On the broad swath of land that slopes down from the street, two new buildings are under construction, complementing a large sports and entertainment arena that has just opened very close by. The developments will make what was once little more than a parking lot and vacant land, into an area buzzing with human activity and creating a connection between “town and gown.”
Under construction on the northeast of the site, facing onto St. Paul Street is the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre. It is a $60-million, 95,000-sq.ft. complex that will hold four different public theatres when it is completed in 2015. Just to the south is Brock University’s new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts. This $45 million, 93,700-sq.ft. complex is occupying a renovated 19th-century former hair cloth factory, with a new theatre component added on its east side. Nearly 500 students, faculty and staff will move into this building starting in May 2015. The Brock University students will also be using space in the performing arts centre, which is just a short footpath away.
To the west is the Meridien Spectator Arena, which already opened in October as a 5,000-6,000-seat venue for hockey and concerts. Two high pedestrian bridges were built from it across the valley to link it to the downtown. The longer bridge, called the “Rankin Gateway” after Rankin Engineering, who engineered and built the bridges, is 80 metres long and about 11 metres above the ground below. The shorter bridge is 50 metres long. Meanwhile, a half a kilometre away, the existing Burgoyne Bridge is also being replaced with a new $90-million signature structure spanning 350 metres across 12 Mile Creek and the 406 highway.
The performing arts centre and the Brock university arts school were designed by Diamond and Schmitt Architects. Both have a large glass box-like element that is cantilevered out, echoing the town’s “buildings on stilts” theme. In the St. Catharines’ Arts Centre, the glass wall makes up a vast open wall at the back of the largest of the four theatres, providing expansive views of the valley.
The 19th-century factory converted into the Brock University arts school is a long and narrow brick structure that originally ran beside the canal’s raceway. The factory originally had hydro turbines in the basement and generated the town’s first electricity supply. The renovation retains the building’s heritage qualities, keeping elements like the original iron columns and timber floors, and features like original window openings as doors. To create larger open spaces for the fine arts studios, columns were removed in some rooms and new “diamond” ceiling trusses were devised to connect the walls.
Douglas Kneale, Dean of Humanities at Brock, says: “There’s an awaful lot of history here. For a school fo fine and performing arts, t his sort of post-industrial, loft feel is perfect for waht’s going to happen here. It’s an engine of innovation.”
The consulting engineers and other sub-consultants for both the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre and the Brock School of Fine and Performing Arts are: Blackwell (structural), Crossey (mechanical); Mulvey & Banani (electrical/security, telecommunications); Peto MacCallum (geotechnical); Fisher Dachs (theatre); Jaffe Holden (acoustics); CFMS-West (commissioning); and Claude Cormier and associates (landscape). Civil engineers for the Performing Arts Centre are RVA, and for the Brock building are AECOM. ERA is the heritage architect and AMEC is the environmental consultant for the Brock building. Bird Construction is building both facilities.
Funding for the St. Catharines Performing Arts Centre was provided by all three levels of government.