Safety issues at Performing Arts Center
Playgoers hoping for a bird's-eye view in seats in the elevated section of the Performing Arts Center (PAC) at the high school will find it closed this weekend for performances of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."
The seating is off-limits until safety issues involving inadequate lighting and a lack of handrails are resolved.
In a letter dated January 28, Oak Bluffs building inspector Jerry Weiner notified Neal Weaver, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School assistant principal and facilities manager, that, "As of January 30, 2009, until further notice, we will allow only limited use of the PAC, and absolutely no occupancy of any of the upper level seating."
File photo by Todd Cleland
Mr. Weiner's letter said the building department's decision was based on a report of violation findings from building code consultant David Macartney on a walkthrough of the PAC with Mr. Weiner and Oak Bluffs local inspector and administrator James Dunn on January 16.
In Mr. Macartney's report to Mr. Weiner, dated January 26, he wrote that although the upper level of seating, which consists of 371 seats, is not equipped with handrails in the stepped aisles, a review of the state building code, in effect at the time of the PAC's design in 1994, clearly required such handrails.
Mr. Macartney also noted that much of the aisle lighting, which he estimated at 80 percent, is not functioning to provide illumination during a performance.
"In my opinion, the overall condition of this space is a lawsuit waiting to happen," Mr. Macartney's letter stated. "I can easily envision a situation where a slip and fall could occur for which the school would be found liable, due to the obvious existence of these liabilities."
Mr. Dunn said yesterday that Mr. Weiner called in Mr. Macartney, who runs a professional code consulting service based in South Easton, to evaluate what they already knew about the PAC's code violations.
Mr. Weaver, who has worked at the high school for two years, said Mr. Weiner has conducted annual inspections since he has been there, but that the PAC issues did not come up last year.
"It's something I think has been on his radar, but we are just now being made aware of it so that we can't use that area of the Performing Arts Center this year," Mr. Weaver said. "When Mr. Weiner came here last fall and mentioned the PAC issues to us, I said I would like to have a written record of the areas we're not in compliance in."
The notice came two weeks ago.
"The timing is absolutely horrible, not only with the musical this week, but we have another play later in the year, and the closing can potentially affect the many upcoming events we have, such as the Minnesingers, the Oak Bluffs town meeting, the spring festival," said Mr. Weaver. "It would have been nice if we could have found out sooner and addressed these issues over the summer."
The timing is especially unfortunate for the school's drama department, as the closing of the rear stadium section means 371 fewer seats available for this weekend's four musical performances.
"I do agree that we need to add aisle lighting and railings, as it is in everyone's best interest," drama department director Kate Murray wrote in an email Tuesday. "However, we were only informed that we would have to close off the stadium section two weeks before the musical opened, which really threw us."
Ms. Murray, who also serves as the PAC director, said since the high school will not be allowed to provide a temporary fix so that the section could remain open, she is concerned about having to turn audience members away because of limited seating.
"The musical raises the most money in a year out of all our events in the Performing Arts Department," she wrote. "That money goes to the school's general fund and could help to pay for the process of having an engineer fix the safety issues. We are losing almost half our seating (therefore income) for the musical."
Mr. Dunn said yesterday that although inspections take place annually, some of the PAC issues had not come up before last summer, particularly one regarding a certificate of occupancy. Mr. Dunn said that Mr. Weiner has only served as the building inspector for four years and that his predecessor had not issued certificates of occupancy to the high school.
"We began doing those last year, and started putting them together for all the rooms in the high school, back in September, knowing there were issues to address," Mr. Dunn said. "We issue one for every room that can be used as a classroom and one for the entire building. The Performing Arts Center is considered a room that requires a certificate of occupancy, as well. In December, it got slower, and after the holidays, we started to work on it."
According to plans on file with the Oak Bluffs Building Department, architect William Brainard of Design Partnership of Cambridge worked on the original design of the PAC, which opened in March 1997.
"The original plans called for bleacher seating in that upper section," Mr. Dunn said. "Somewhere along the line they put in standard fixed seating, which requires handrails."
Mr. Dunn said he spoke with Joe Ground at Design Partnership of Cambridge this week. "He said they would be interested in getting back involved, although the original designer retired," Mr. Dunn said.
Yesterday, Mr. Weiner and Mr. Dunn met with Martha's Vineyard Regional High School principal Stephen Nixon and Mr. Weaver.
"It's something that can be taken care of; it's not hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it can be remedied at a reasonable cost, with a reasonable timetable," said Mr. Dunn, adding that Mr. Weiner has offered his service on weekends to help with installations and has made recommendations for finding materials for handrails.
Jim Novack, who retired after 10 years as PAC director, continues to work part-time as a consultant. He said he thinks the PAC may have first been used in 1995, but it was not fully equipped. Lighting, sound, curtains, and rigging were installed in the fall of 1997. He started his job as director in January of 1998. The seats were installed in 1995.
"I agree with the building inspector - these are things that should be done, and need to be done," Mr. Novack said. "The question is who is responsible for paying for that - if they weren't in error when the place was finished, I think around 1995, according to codes established then, who knows."
Mr. Novack said the biggest issue is safety. "Some people say nobody's been hurt in the last 15 years - that doesn't mean it won't happen tomorrow," he said. "When this all comes out, I hope people understand when they see the building inspector has closed part of the Performing Arts Center, that there is no danger for the public to be in it."