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  • Hannah Brown

Smart Thinking: San Mateo Unified School District Provides Model for Planning, Programming, and Pari

I came across some articles about a multi-campus project we completed and thought I’d share because this project models a process that can be deeply beneficial to school districts that have to navigate complicated decisions with multiple users, challenges, and stakeholders influencing the process and program—while giving each unique school equal attention and results.

The San Mateo Performing Arts Center at San Mateo High School opened with much anticipation and applause from users, students, and the owner. This project is one of eight public school theatre renovations funded by Measure M, a 2006 $298 million bond measure. This particular theatre is the theatre for the high school but also serves as the community’s performing arts center. One might imagine that because of its high profile and multiple uses, it would receive special attention. However, parity was a critical goal to address across eight theatres on six high school campuses.

Thinking ahead to the potential pitfalls, The San Mateo Unified School District cleverly wrote into their bond measure master planning services for the eight theatres in varying conditions, with different seat counts, and site challenges. We were hired to create the master plan in this thoughtful process that took a holistic view of the district’s arts programs and sent a clear message to the district’s constituents. And that message is, “We recognize the importance of the arts everywhere in the district.”

As the district’s consultant, we sat with all of the different user groups at all of the different schools and came up with a district-wide baseline of improvements that would respond to the issues that came out of those meetings, and then applied the baseline to the various schools’ theatres. It was important to the district that users felt heard and that their issues were addressed. It was also important that the improvements didn’t become about this piece of equipment or that technology. The baseline was higher level than that: aspects that all theatres should have to properly teach, inspire, and support the arts. Certainly all the aesthetic improvements, creature comforts, the remedy of capital deficiencies, safety, and compliance were addressed, as well.

All of the theatres are different and, by nature, needed different solutions. It evolved that some theatres physically required more intervention than others. For example, the charming 1920’s era theatre at Burlingame High School required only a tune up, while others were gutted to the dirt and re-built in a much improved condition. Aragon High School got the one new theatre because the existing (and inadequate) performance space was being squeezed out by gym expansions. Mills High School’s theatre was reconstructed rotated ninety degrees from the theatre that preceded it. Hillsdale and Capuchino each had two theatres, all of which where reconfigured within the existing walls. Five of the six large theatres were provided with seating balconies that served to create more lobby space, as well as give the school the ability to scale the room down when not filled to capacity and make the theatres into better spaces.

Essentially we developed a “basic food group” approach for the theatres. This included: mandatory life safety, access compliance and seismic upgrades, environmental systems upgrades, and theatre facilities upgrades. We provided criteria on the theatre-specific aspects of the architecture and engineering. A substantial amount of our work addressed the theatres’ programmatic aspects: comfort, visual and acoustic improvements for the audience environment, technical support facilities, and technical theatre systems. Acoustics assessment, recommendations and improvement advice were provided by our collaborator Bill Dohn of Dohn + Associates on many projects.

The process let the users know they were being heard and each school was being attended to equally. The Board approved the master plan and we were assigned to the architects in the pool who were hired to execute the projects. The architects were thrilled that the core of the programming preceded their efforts and they did not have to reinvent the wheel separately but equally. There were three architects for the six schools: Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, HKIT Architects, and Bill Gould Design (nowArtik).

Greystone West were the bond program managers and they masterfully mapped out a phased construction process across the county. We went in two waves. We designed the first wave and submitted for Division of the State Architect approval. Then we moved to the second wave. This was mostly so that the school district wouldn’t diminish their available facility resources or overtax their own market from a construction standpoint. They could do it over time so there would always be a school auditorium for another school to borrow while theirs was being demolished.

With all the theatres completed now and having received a warm response from students, faculty and parents: It’s show time!

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