Armed with a phalanx of professionals to present its case, the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center easily won approval for its plan to hide rooftop heating and air-conditioning equipment last Thursday, January 9, following a brief, uncontentious public hearing before the Historic Preservation and Architectural Review Board on Thursday, January 9.
After months of resistance to previous proposals to fix what board members said was an eyesore they never approved, the board voted unanimously with member David Berridge absent to grant a “certificate of appropriateness” for the Cinema’s latest plan, which relocates air-conditioning units to a central location near the elevator bulkhead and installs white screening panels on the second- and third floor roofs to hide the equipment and ductwork.
A “green wall” of wisteria will be grown up the Meadow Street side of the building “to mitigate what were already big white walls, “ said landscape architect Ed Hollander, one of the Cinema’s professionals on hand for the hearing, “trying to break that down and soften it in a way that could be done quickly and economically.”
“I think what we tried to do is the best job we can — for the Cinema, and all the people who have been involved with the Cinema,” Mr. Hollander said of the overall project after he and architect Paul Drago had finished their presentations, “and for the village also, to try and create something that will be of benefit to every citizen of this village for years to come.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said the board’s chair, Dean Gomolka. “We had a great tour of the facility and it’s amazing.”
The project is about 85 to 90-percent complete, Building Inspector Thomas Preiato wrote last week in response to emailed questions. A “soft opening” is planned for March 29 followed by a grand opening on the Saturday of Easter weekend, April 11, according to April Gornik, chair of the Cinema Arts Center board, and the Cinema’s executive director, Gillian Gordon.
The screening plan is expected to add roughly $75,000 to the cost of a construction project that has been estimated to cost $6 million. It was finalized a week before the January 9 hearing, when Mr. Gomolka and Mr. Berridge — an architect who has been the most vocal critic of the Cinema project for making some design changes without board approval — met with Cinema representatives at the site to work out the details.
Mr. Berridge initially resisted the screening plan as it was first presented at the board’s December meeting and called then for the site visit, insisting better locations could be found for the equipment. He was traveling and did not attend the January 9 hearing. The Cinema’s original plan presented in December did not call for concentrating the air-conditioning units in one location.
The board’s approval also covers the installation of a three-section window in a third-floor wall of the Virtual Reality Lab to provide natural light as well as a third-floor door to give a second means of egress to the lab, as requested by the fire marshal.
If the donation-and-grant-dependent, non-profit Cinema project sparked any opposition during its dust up with the Review Board, there was no sign of it at the public hearing. No one spoke against the screening plan or made comments of any kind except resident Jeff Peters, who asked how much noise the air conditioning units would make.
The Cinema’s acoustical engineer told him that noise levels would comply with the village’s 55-decibel noise limit. The board’s attorney, Elizabeth Vail, noted that the Review Board had no jurisdiction over the issue, which she said was a code enforcement matter for the Building Inspector.
Charged with protecting the architectural integrity of the Sag Harbor Historic District, in which the Cinema is located, and the aesthetic integrity of the entire, wider village, the Review Board approved the Cinema reconstruction plans in two phases in 2018, including a proposal unveiled late in the year to enlarge the third floor and its terrace. But when an unapproved shed roof appeared on the second-floor last summer, and later when the HVAC equipment went in — prompting a flood of complaints to board members — the Cinema has been struggling to address the board’s concerns while keeping the project on track.
At the hearing, the Cinema Art Center’s board chair, April Gornik, resisted Mr. Gomolka’s offer to schedule another site visit to consider two less expensive “options” the Cinema’s architectural team offered: One would have keep all the air-conditioning condensers in place, screening them where they are; and the other would have concentrated them on the Meadow Lane side of the building, leaving them visible from the municipal parking lot.
There’s “no time for another site visit,” Ms. Gornik said. “This is an option our architects thought you would be interested in” but the design questions “hopefully [will be] resolved tonight to your satisfaction. I actually don’t think we have time … Time is for us very much of the essence at the moment …. Time will outweigh the cost.”
The original Sag Harbor Cinema burned in December, 2016, after the Sag Harbor Partnership had started negotiating with its owner, Gerald Mallow, to buy it. That $8-million deal closed in 2017. Subsequently the partnership turned ownership over to the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center.
A chart that was displayed at the hearing by Mr. Drago to show the three screening options also offered an explanation for the Cinema’s problems as it installed the rooftop HVAC equipment.
According to the explanation shown on the chart, two large units on the second floor were included in the plans that the Review Board approved in 2018. The problem was that the approval came before the steel “dunnage” or support structure for the HVAC equipment had been designed. That step, delayed to save extra expense as plans for the third floor evolved, turned out to require that the equipment be raised two feet higher than originally expected.
“Subsequently, after the original approval, we submitted construction drawings to the Building Department, which did not object to what was shown,” the chart reads. “The existing village ordinance did not require screening of rooftop units. After the units were installed,” and after what Mr. Gomolka has described as a torrent of complaints, “we were asked by the ARB to design screening to obscure the visual impact of the rooftop units.”
The unapproved shed roof, which appeared earlier in the summer, was installed to hide steel rods that were in place when the project engineer determined that a third-floor wall containing a row of windows needed bracing. The Review Board, and Mr. Berridge in particular, derided the Cinema for making a design change without obtaining board approval and required the roof to be removed and the bracing to be mounted internally.