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"Theodore and Annette Lerner of Bethesda donated $1 million, and the main theater will bear their name."

Bethesda, MD, February 13 – An architectural firm that has helped renovate Chicago's Soldier Field and design an exhibition center in Perth, Australia, has taken on an altogether different project -- a Bethesda parking garage.

Boston-based Wood & Zapata has designed the plans for a $12 million arts center that will be attached to a new garage under construction on Auburn Avenue in downtown Bethesda. The building will be the venue for BAPA's Imagination Stage, formerly the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts.

Construction is set to begin at the end of this month and be completed in a year.

The arts center will include a 450-seat professional theater and a 200-seat theater for student productions, including BAPA's award-winning Deaf Access Program. The center also will have drama, dance, music and digital media studios.

Wood & Zapata has added its own touches, including smoked glass walls 5 degrees off of vertical; a facade of copper, aluminum, granite and limestone; and a floor designed by a Washington, D.C.-area artist.

Despite the large scale of some of Wood & Zapata's projects, the firm was glad to work on the arts center.

"We try not to keep ourselves confined to any scale of design," said Wood & Zapata project manager Steven Thomas. "With such a good cause as Imagination Stage, it was a very appealing opportunity."

In 1998, county officials decided the garage and center would be a good combination, another example of the mixed-use approach to development that is also part of the redevelopment of Silver Spring. Officials hope to turn a utilitarian building into a place that is inviting to pedestrians.

Wood & Zapata was interested the challenge of inserting a new building into an existing garage, Thomas said. He worked on a similar project in Philadelphia, a shopping center called Hamilton Square, that includes a supermarket and garage.

Executing Wood & Zapata's vision will involve some finesse on the part of Forrester Construction Company of Rockville, which recently was awarded the contract for the project.

Forrester has worked on John Hopkins University's Baltimore and Shady Grove campuses, the University of Maryland College Park campus, and the Café Deluxe and Austin Grill restaurants in Bethesda. The company will donate $500,000 of work to BAPA.

Last year, the county built the foundation and erected the girders of the garage. In the next year, Forrester will work within the garage structure and carefully erect more girders, some as long as 60 feet, according to Nick Raico, Forrester's senior project manager. Steel contractors will use forklifts, not the usual cranes, to move the girders without harming the existing garage.

To keep audiences from hearing cars circle the garage for parking spaces, Forrester will soundproof the center with materials like neoprene.

"It will be an award-winning project," Raico said. "You won't see anything like it in Bethesda."

Heidi Lippman, the artist chosen to design the main floor of the building, is excited about working on a Wood & Zapata project.

"How could you not be?" she asked. "[The plans are] gorgeous. It's extremely thrilling and challenging to work within their format."

Lippman has designed a terrazzo, a floor composed of pieces of stone in epoxy. Swirling of lines of zinc and aluminum will be set in a cobalt-blue base with metallic flecks. The designs are meant to convey a sense of growth, a theme that Lippman thought was perfect for an arts center for children.

The new art center will be a step up from Imagination Stage's two existing locations. Administrative offices, classes, and venues for some performances are located at the former Whittier Woods Elementary School in Bethesda, where director Bonnie Fogel founded the organization with a handful of students 23 years ago. The Deaf Access Program holds performances in a renovated dress shop on the second floor of White Flint.

"We're in two horribly compromised spaces," said Judi Canter, BAPA's fund-raising campaign director.

The new center will be architecturally significant and will draw audiences from across the metro area, Canter said.

BAPA has raised just more than $8.5 million for the project and is still seeking more contributions, according to Canter. Theodore and Annette Lerner of Bethesda donated $1 million, and the main theater will bear their name. The studio theater has not yet been named, however. That honor will go to a donor who contributes $500,000.

The post-Sept. 11 economic slump is not helping fund-raising efforts, but the staff is committed to raising the money, Canter said. The group is optimistic about covering construction costs in coming months.

"Right now, with things the way they are, the children need arts in their lives more than ever," Canter said. "The economy is hard. It will be more difficult, but we have great support now, and more will come."

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