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Zach announces new theater plans

Arts area south of the river to get a boost.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Zach Theatre will release designs today for a sleek 430-seat theater that will be surrounded by a tree-filled plaza and grounds. Slipped onto Zach's site at South Lamar Boulevard and West Riverside Drive, the new building promises to help establish an arts park on Lady Bird Lake.

"Along with the Long Center, we're bookending a stretch along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake," said Zach Managing Director Elisbeth Challener. "Our new theater is not just a great story for the development of Austin's arts during these times, but it's also a great story about downtown Austin and the future of (the lakeside) park."

And despite the recession, Zach leaders say, they have raised $16 million toward their $20 million goal and are primed to see their new building — the third stage on Zach Theatre's campus —become a reality. The recession also is expected to help reduce construction costs.

"We're bucking a trend," said Tom Terkel, chairman of the Zach capital campaign. "We've had our best fundraising year in our history."

A year ago, arts patrons James Armstrong and Bill Dickson each donated $1 million. Terkel said an additional $3 million has been raised in the past 12 months. Zach also has $10 million in city bond money, part of the 2006 voter-approved bond package, and $1 million left from a 1985 bond package.

Although a construction schedule has not been finalized, Terkel said the goal is to break ground in 2010 and open by 2012.

The new theater will join Zach's existing 200-seat Kleberg Stage and the 130-seat Whisenhunt Stage to provide the organization with more facilities for larger productions. Once the new venue is built, the Whisenhunt will be devoted to the Zach's youth theater programs.

The venue was designed by Austin architect Arthur Andersson of Andersson-Wise Architects, designers of the Block 21 mixed-use project downtown, which includes a hotel and a venue for KLRU's "Austin City Limits."

Andersson's design calls for a clean, modern form clad in a combination of bluish-gray brick and cement composite panels. A two-story glass lobby will front the 29,000-square-foot building, which will face west onto a tree-filled plaza that will be able to accommodate gatherings of up to 600 people. Andersson said landscape plans call for 80 trees to be added to the site, which is now an expanse of sun-beaten lawn little used by visitors to the adjacent hike-and-bike trail.

The stage will be 80 feet wide, more than twice the width of the Kleberg Stage, the larger of Zach's two stages. Though the new theater will have double the number of seats of the Kleberg, seating will be arranged on a somewhat steep angle, decreasing the distance between each seat and the stage.

Andersson said the building will have environmentally sensitive materials and landscaping designed to capture rainwater.

Andersson estimated that construction expenses were down about 10 to 15 percent from when the project was first imagined more than a year ago, allowing for more design leeway within the $15.3 million construction budget.

Just as it will act as an architectural bookend to the Long Center, Zach's new theater will add to the cultural cooperation between the two civic arts centers. In 1999, former Dell Computer Corp. executive Mort Topfer and his late wife, Angela, donated $5 million to the Long Center for the Performing Arts. An 800-seat theater there was to be named in their honor, but when plans for the Long Center were scaled down from three to two theaters, the Topfers agreed to have their donation folded into the Long Center's general campaign.

But now, in an agreement between Long Center and Zach officials, the new Zach theater will be named for Topfer and his current wife, Bobbi. Like Zach, the Long Center is a private nonprofit operating on city-owned property.

"This project and collaboration is, in our eyes, the arts story in Austin over the past year," the Topfers said in a statement. "We are so proud to have our name associated with the Zach brand and artistic integrity."

Among those who have anted up since the Topfers signaled their approval of the Zach honor are Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long, the couple whose $20 million solidified the effort to build the performing arts center that now bears their name. The Longs donated $250,000 to the Zach capital campaign.

Zach Theatre began in 1933 as the Austin Civic Theatre. In 1972, a fundraising drive resulted in construction of the 8,000-square-foot Kleberg Stage building, and the organization changed its name to Zachary Scott Theatre Center in honor of the Austin-reared Hollywood actor.

In 1990, the organization built a second building that included the Whisenhunt Stage, along with administrative offices, production work studios, rehearsal space and an education room.

About two years ago, the organization renamed itself Zach Theatre and purchased the warehouse-style building adjacent to the Whisenhunt that was Bicycle Sport Shop.

That building, bought for just under $2 million, will be used for rehearsal, set production and offices.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699