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Democrat Photo by Dan Hust

YES, ANOTHER NATURAL amphitheater exists near the Woodstock site in Bethel. It’s called Gabriel’s Bowl and is located due east of the southern portion of the original festival’s 37.5 acres. This is the proposed spot to put the performing arts center, which would likely occupy the space closest to the forest in this southward-looking photo. One of two small hills that flank the site can be seen at left.

Woodstock – Today
And Tomorrow, Part I

Editor’s Note: Perhaps there is no more massive and far-reaching project happening in Sullivan County right now than the to-be-built performing arts center at the Woodstock site in Bethel. With that in mind, the Democrat has embarked upon a four-part series to examine the issues and opinions surrounding this $40 million undertaking.

By Dan Hust

BETHEL — June 7, 2002 – True, Alan Gerry in 1996 made it known that he had purchased 37.5 acres, plus 1,300 more surrounding that parcel, in Bethel – thereby becoming the owner of not only a piece of land but a piece of history.
True, the Liberty native and billionaire stood side by side with NYS Governor George Pataki on that acreage in 2000 and announced his plans for a $40 million performing arts center.
True, a man who shunned the original concerts turned locals’ dread to anticipation at the prospect of more gatherings to commemorate the festival of “peace, love and music” that occurred there in 1969.
But when it comes to the development of a historical icon known simply – and worldwide – as Woodstock, Alan Gerry is supported by a core team of four (all local residents, incidentally) at the Gerry Foundation in Ferndale and a host of consultants that’s going to make this project a reality – or see it go down in flames.
Executive Director Jonathan Drapkin and foundation spokesperson Glenn Pontier are counting on the former.
“What a beautiful place to sit and listen to music,” says Drapkin in standard business suit and tie as he stands in an open field of gently swaying grass and dandelions.
But wait . . . he’s not on the acreage that got trampled by nearly half a million people 33 years ago.
He’s standing atop a curved ridge a few hundred feet to the east, looking down into an oval cow pasture called “Gabriel’s Bowl.”
In a few years, this could be the site of a 17,500-seat performing arts center – three-quarters of which would be outdoor seating and might not look that different from today, according to the draft Environmental Impact Statement the foundation is required by law to create.
“It’s exciting, it really is,” Drapkin exclaims as birds flit by in the midday sunshine. “This is a special project.”
Indeed. Comparisons have been made to centers of music like Tanglewood and Saratoga, and Drapkin and crew have trekked to more than 30 such sites across the country to gain crucial information on how to build an outdoor, year-round attraction.
But . . .
“Whatever we become will not be like any of them,” he adds. “We want to be our own entity.
“What works in Tanglewood may not work here. We need to find our own path.”
Yet the parallels remain, and Drapkin is cognizant of that fact.
He says, “We want to create an intelligent business plan that works,” and follows that up with, “The Boston Symphony Orchestra subsidizes Tanglewood to the tune of millions of dollars a year to operate what is principally a school there.”
Right now, the Gerry Foundation and its subsidiary, GF Entertainment, have the New York Philharmonic headlining the opening season of the center, very, very tentatively scheduled for 2004. Although a school for the performing arts is part of the second phase of the project (due to begin some time after the performing arts center is up and running), it remains to be seen if the Philharmonic will – like the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tanglewood and the NYC Ballet in Saratoga – make the site its summer home. (Discussion of just that is reportedly underway between foundation and Philharmonic officials.)
Actually, although the foundation has been jumping through the requisite legal hoops with the Town of Bethel planning and town boards (not to mention the county and the state, which is providing $15 million for the project), very little is firmly set, at least until the impact statement is finalized by the end of August.
For example, the center itself was just moved from a rocky ledge overlooking the old Gabriel family farm on West Shore Road (right above the pond made famous by its nude bathers in ‘69) to a secluded spot flanked by two hummocks and acres of forest 1,000 feet away.
Although world-class architect Richard Meier (think the Getty Center in Los Angeles) had designed a “cloud-like” center taking advantage of the hill’s scenic opportunities, Gerry Foundation officials say an overabundance of rocks and the need to cut and fill large amounts of land at the original location determined that a more “nestled” type of facility was warranted.
Explains Drapkin, “So we turned around and – looking at the natural beauty of Gabriel’s Bowl – said, ‘Oh, my!’”
Others are crying the same, not from the thrill but a chill. For, as a result of the movement of the performing arts center, a museum, a performance hall, a visitors center and a marketplace for artisans and craftspeople had to be shifted as well – right onto the southern third of the original concert site’s 37.5 acres.
Meier, having completed his contract with GF, is no longer involved in the plan, and no new architect has been named to draw up a new design for the performing arts center. But at a recent Town of Bethel public hearing, only a few had a difficulty with the new plan as it stands now.
The most vocal of those opposed to disturbing the site are the members of the Woodstock Preservation Alliance. Though they’re quick to point out that they support the performing arts center concept, they’re equally quick to point out that GF owns 1,300 acres – 600 of which are now zoned for building performing arts center-related structures – surrounding the original 37.5.
The Gerry Foundation is quick to reply, however, that roughly two-thirds of those 37.5 acres will be left relatively untouched – save for federally mandated handicapped-accessible trails and a stage where another one sat in 1969.
“What you see is principally what you will see,” Drapkin says as he looks out on the original grassy festival site from the monument park at the corner of Hurd and West Shore roads. “You can’t even see the pavilion [from here].”
For the most part – and at least through phase one of the project, slated to last until 2006 – the structures that will be built on the festival site will be temporary, says Pontier.
Those structures, too, will likely not be high enough for visitors to see them from the monument or most of the stage area of the site, creating what Pontier calls a “viewshed.”
Plus, he points out that similarly temporary buildings were on the southern half of the site in 1969 (mainly to offer food and drink and other services to the initially expected 40,000-50,000 people).
“We do recognize there’s a historic legacy here . . . which is clearly subject to interpretation,” Drapkin explains as a farm tractor makes its way down Hurd Road. “We’ve chosen to honor and interpret it as a performing arts center.”
And one other thing: “It’s not 1969 anymore,” says Drapkin. “How people attend events and what their expectations are have changed.”
“What happened [in ‘69] was unique,” adds Pontier. “It’s never happened quite that way before or since. You can’t go back.”
But aren’t they trying? After all, won’t the performing arts center’s attraction rest in large part on the fact that it’s next to the Woodstock site?
“We thought pretty hard about what’s in the master plan [for the project],” says Pontier. “We think the major difference is that the [1969] festival was a three-day event. Our goal is for something permanent. That means thinking what else works to attract people.”
That said, “a shopping center doesn’t work here,” says Drapkin. “It must blend well with the performing arts center and Bethel.”
Since the Town of Bethel is the lead governmental agency in this project, their approval of what GF finally determines is crucial.
Thus, “it’s the town’s job to weigh the passionate arguments versus the logical arguments,” says Drapkin.
Some of that has already happened, including the town’s decision (yet to be made official) not to allow casinos in the area – another massive project looming in the county’s future, and one that Drapkin and Pontier say has no relation whatsoever to Gerry’s plans.
And unlike casinos, public response – both locally and from afar – has been universally positive, says the Gerry Foundation. That’s even with the potential for between 7,000 and 30,000 people descending on Bethel for a concert at the center (though, contrary to rumor, there are no plans currently to widen main feeder highway Route 17B nor add a special exit off Route 17).
“We think we’re being pretty careful,” says Drapkin as he intently studies this famous field once owned by farmer Max Yasgur. “We’re trying to find a very good fit for the community.”
Next Week: How the definitions of “development,” “community” and perhaps most importantly, “Woodstock” differ between the Gerry Foundation and the Woodstock Preservation Alliance.

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