Thoughts On The Walt

Walt_birds My mother has an old friend who is known best for her ability to leave. Whenever she and her husband are coming, we are all excited because they are a very entertaining, energetic couple. However as the weekend moves on, the stories about how wonderful they are get old as do the passive aggressive actions by her to coerce the husband into the bedroom. By the end of the weekend we are all ecstatic so see them leave. For sure, we are glad to see them, but are especially glad to see them leave because they do it so well. They clean the bathroom, run the vacuum cleaner, and put the sheets in the washing machine before packing! They offer an experience afterward that is like no other, and are a perfect metaphor for the long-awaited Raleigh downtown amphitheater which opens today.

The project stands on land formerly occupied by Sir Walter Chevrolet, one block to the west of the Raleigh Convention Center. That center was designed for future expansion into the lot. In the meantime Raleigh officials have erected a 5,500-seat, “temporary” amphitheater site which will host around 20 events per summer.

Walt (2) It is important to keep the long-range plan in mind when visiting the site, because it is bare bones to say the least. There are no velvet cloaks at the entrances. If you are expecting something nice like Koka Booth Amphitheatre or Time Warner Pavilion, you will be sorely disappointed. The stage is boxed in only by a very basic lighting rig that complies to industry shed tour standards. The bathrooms are in trailers, which is a step up from porta-johns in Moore Square. The concessions are all from temporary trailers and folding tables. There is no in-house video, and spot lighting is from extremely temporary scaffolding that looks like it could blow over in a 20 mph wind.

While all of those items are expected and excusable, there are some choices designers made that will severely hamper the experience, especially for those who drive long distances and pay first rate prices for shows.

Walt (5) The seating is somewhat similar to Walnut Creek in that it is arranged much like a baseball diamond. Around the outer infield arc there is “box” seating, which consists of stacking chairs separated by pipes, much like the boxes at Walnut Creek. Between the stage and this arc, however, there is nothing but a sea of concrete. Officials told me the plan is to place stacking chairs in this zone to simulate reserved seating. The problem here is that there is absolutely no rise from the front row to the box seats, so everyone in the entire infield will have to stand if Row A decides to stand (and you know they will). Are these the stacking chairs from inside the Convention Center? What happens during times like now when graduations and other events demand the Convention Center chairs? How is security going to control a crowd that has stacking chairs to throw?

Behind the box seats is the only East-West arc aisle, and behind this aisle there is a large section of permanent, reserved seats which slope upward only slightly. At Walnut Creek this East-West aisle is cleverly sunken so people on the lawn are not disturbed. Not here. Patrons in the reserved seating area will have to stand in order to see the stage. That may be par for the course at rock concerts, but it presents real problems for stage productions like Rent and Chelsea Lately.Walt_pan

The remaining land behind the reserved seating is general admission lawn “seating”. While this area does actually have a steep rise, the view of the stage from at least 1/3 of the space, at least right now, is obstructed by tents for the soundboard and for box seating. Most likely these tents will have to go.

Walt (1)The entire seating area is exposed, so be sure to bring a poncho if there is any chance of rain. There is no shelter to speak of, which may present problems for some productions. The real catalyst for the project was the receipt of a framework for a tent to cover much of the seating area. We received this for free from Denver, but had to buy a new fabric skin, which apparently was cost prohibitive given the extreme bare-bones nature of this facility.

While sight-lines and shelter are concerns for this facility, the sound looms as the biggest. Raleigh’s newest landmark, the Shimmer Wall, borders Left Field, and will probably be known as the Silver Monster to musicians. The angle of the stage is such that the entire stage left bank of PAs will be aimed directly at the shimmer wall, and likely create an acoustical mess. Rap Bap….Rap Bap is what two snare drum hits will sound like for anyone along the 3rd baseline. It will be interesting to hear music from the right baseline as the music from the stage left bank will be hitting those fans almost a full second after the stage right bank hits.

Walt (3) For some reason the design of the amphitheater is within the confines of the arcing access road to the Convention Center’s service tunnel. A better design would have been to relocate this road directly adjacent to and parallel to W. Cabarrus St. This would have allowed the stage to be tucked back closer to the Cabarrus/Dawson intersection, thus allowing the stage to be turned more to the south. Perhaps a better grading plan would have allowed the stage to be lower than Dawson, and the outfield to be higher than McDowell streets. This would have provided much better sightlines.

The real advantages the amphitheater has (over most in the country, in fact) come from its location. Ingress and egress will be outstanding, and a very welcome feature to those who have sat in office building parking lots in Cary for well over an hour without moving. Downtown Raleigh has well over 10,000 parking spaces, and most of them are empty during the times of use for this facility.

For people who want to kick around after the show, downtown Raleigh offers the finest nightlife experience in the Triangle. In fact, there are over 70 places to drink in downtown Raleigh, and most are a short walk from the amphitheater.

The amphitheater will end up being a great move for the City Manager’s books, especially if weather and crowd control are not problems. Built on a shoestring that would even make Tom Fetzer proud, the place is positioned to be a huge cash-cow for the city. The facility is built to be in place only a few years, and if convention center expansion gets pushed back, a renovation plan will have to be in the works. Given the rise of the internet and the stagnation of the world economy, that expansion may be further off than anticipated. In fact, I predict that the expansion of the convention center will not happen until at least 2025, probably 2030.

What will probably happen is that after 3 summers, the city will probably realize that expansion is still just a long-term goal, and must then deal with mounting complaints about The Walt. I expect to see permanent bathrooms, more substantial field lighting rigs, permanent gold circle seating implemented in the short run.

Is this review premature? Perhaps. Yes, I have not heard a band in the facility yet. The problem is that nobody else had either. As of 21 hours before showtime, the time all of these photos were taken, the facility had no PA system, no lighting in place, the bathroom access ramps had not been built, no vendors were in place, no ticketing facility was in place, and no seating existed for the gold circle. A lot will have to happen before the paying public comes in two days. We’ll know a lot more about the facility by the end of the weekend.


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  • ct Said:

    I’m happy to see it open, but no way will it be a “huge” cash cow. Comments from the city say that they might be able to make an annual $500,000 direct profit after paying all expenses. That will keep the city running for about 8 hours, given the size of the city’s operating budget. Even if there is a 3:1 multiplier for indirect incremental revenues like sales taxes and parking fees, the profit from the amphitheater is just a drop in the ocean.

    This is about politics and downtown boosterism, not money.

  • Chris Said:

    They couldn’t turn the stage to face south, then all the Boylan Heights residents would have complained.

    BTW, if the Connells don’t open with “Boylan Heights” I’ll be massively disappointed.

  • Dana Said:

    Boylan Heights is to the west.

    ct, $500K plus sales and meal taxes in downtown restaurants is great money, especially compared to an empty lot. I wonder what Walnut Creek’s books look like this summer. Probably a lot better given that they only have to book big acts now and don’t have to put up with would-be half-empties like Heart and OAR.

  • Jake Said:

    Dana, I was wondering the same thing myself about how far behind the amphitheater furnishing seemed in all of the photos I have seen to date. (Maybe they are on track, but talk about a hell of a deadline.)

    Chris — I’m no event planner but a $500K revenue for one event doesn’t seem too bad for a venue of this size. IIRC, events at the RBC Center can yield up to or beyond the $1M mark depending on attendance and the type of event being held there. Bud Light Downtown Raleigh Shimmer Wall Amphitheater has somewhere shy of one-third the available seating, and considerably fewer staff/facility costs.

  • Chris Said:

    Jake — $500k for the year, not per one event.

    To gross $500k in revenue for one event, ticket prices would need to be around $100 each.

    Dana — The stage is pointed to the NE, if it was turned 180 degrees and faced SW, it would project the sound directly at Boylan Heights, and there is no way the residents there would go for that.
    Concerts have to end by 10 on weeknights to appease them already.

  • Chris Said:

    I still haven’t figured out why I would pay admission to any show instead of just sitting on the sidewalk outside the fence and listening to the music.

    Do you really need to see the band that bad?

  • Dana Said:

    It faces ESE. I took those photos at 7pm. Look at the shadows. They could have turned the stage at lease to the SE, but because of the compliance with the long swooping driveway, that would have made the stage face a shallow crowd. THIS is why the road causes all of the problems.

  • Brett Said:

    It would been nice to see it face SW, but understandably, it would be very pleasant for the residents in Boylan Heights. But then again, any large city is going produce a decent amount of sound. That’s one reason people enjoy the suburbs in a metropolis area.

    Oh well, there goes to having pretty awesome photos from this venue and the skyline.

  • DPK Said:

    Chris: The stage faces toward the southeast as Dana said above. If it was pointed northeast sound would be directed into the new Wake County parking deck. Also you can make that same argument at any event venue to hear the music. I could go to Regency Park and sit outside in the woods to hear the music.

    You go to a concert to see the show and get the concert experience, not just hear the music.

  • Dana Said:

    So what are everyone’s thoughts on The Walt after last night? I think that perhaps I am wrong about the sound issues, but sightlines are worse than expected and the amount of E-W travel you have to do is annoying. The setting is WAY COOLER than expected!!!

  • ct Said:

    Depending on which number you believe, the amphitheater cost between $1.5 million and $2.5 million to construct. Absent a naming rights deal, the break-even point for the amphitheater is 3 to 5 years out (longer, if you consider the time value of money). To avoid a political stink at the next election, the Mayor and Council are hot to sell naming rights; it’s the only way they can offset the construction cost.

    As to whether the Convention Center makes money or loses money, let’s wait and see what the results are for the fiscal year ending June 30.

    $500K in the City operating budget is mice nuts. Watch a Council meeting, and you’ll see.

  • DPK Said:

    I really wish that there were less chairs and concrete. I understand the need to “sell seats” but grass would make this place feel so much better.

    Plus you know that everyone in those seats is going to end up standing anyways. They have seats in Carter Finley and everyone stands for those games when there’s no real need to.

  • Ernest Said:

    I attended part of the two opening events (Friday and Sunday) from the outside – went for pictures. I spent most of my time at the parking deck directly to the South of the convention center, where you can get much better views and capture the stage area directly. I was pleasantly surprised with the amphitheater and I only hope that it proves to be a great venue for more bands.

    The impact of this amphitheater will be mostly on the nearby businesses and I hope it will encourage more entertainment venues to open at the SW tip of our city’s core. A very good way to utilize unused space and help local businesses, especially when they contribute so much through special taxes, like in the case of the new convention center and hotel.

  • seekthesummit Said:

    We had a great time Friday night. Standing in the space looking at the stage flanked w/ trains passing on our left and our downtown skyline to your right was very cool.

    They turned a dirt lot that wasn’t slated for development anytime in the near future into a downtown destination in the matter of a few months. It may not be perfect, but it is a great addition to our city.

    I talked to a police officer after the event and he said that it’s cool and strange to see so many talks walking around this area now. I wonder how many people go for a stroll down Regency Parkway after a Koka Booth show? Probably not many.

  • J Burton Said:

    We “attended” the grand opening. What I would say was that I surprised how un-family-friendly the venue was. Strollers weren’t allowed. Our picnic wasn’t allowed. The security was abrasive. After being told we couldn’t come in and even sit on the grass, we ate at the parking lot across the street, which was dusty, loud, dirty, and also not a great place to have a youngin. There were no benches or grass around to sit. Luckily we brought a blanket which we laid out on the gravel. Our view of the stage was 80% blocked by the fence surrounding the amphitheater. Close parking was about $10. We checked the city’s website about what could be brought in, and it didn’t forbid strollers or our cheese and crackers and sandwiches.

    One note on the staging I was disappointed by: it immediately backs up to the rail line. As the trains crossed over it, you cannot hear anything but their horn and the rumbling tracks for a significant period of time.

    If you are single or just a couple that isn’t bringing your family, it is probably fine. As a parent trying to have leisure time with my family, I probably won’t go back. Their policies are significantly more restrictive than the amphitheater at the Art Museum, which is closer to me. I don’t know that we would have even attempted to attend if we had seen their policies posted on the city’s website. I guess I wrongly assumed that the city was making this a family friendly venue.

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