The owners of a Portland nightclub and concert venue have filed site plans with the city for a $9.1 million expansion and renovation of the building at the corner of Free and Center streets.

The project would affect all areas of Asylum, which has a sports bar, concert venue and nightclub at 121 Center St., and lead to the creation of a two-story concert and events venue that will expand into an adjacent parking lot. The sports bar also would remain.

But the venue would shed its name in favor of a new one: Free Street Live. The rebranding effort is designed to attract more weddings and conferences.

“We’ve kind of grown up with the club,” said Krista Newman, one of three co-owners. “We’ve had it for almost 20 years. It’s time to make a change. Things get stale after a while.”

Since the designs are in flux, Newman was unable to say how many more people the venue would accommodate and how long the business would need to be closed during the project. But she said changes will allow them to host more seated events, including concerts, private functions, business conferences and weddings.

“Changing the space a little bit will allow us to grow what we do so it’s not just shows,” Newman said. “Bands are great, but they don’t always pay the bills. With weddings, you can bring in revenue as well as with private events.”

The owners are eager to move forward with the project. They’d like to begin construction this summer and have the project completed by next spring, though that time line is contingent on the city’s planning and approval process, which is trying to process an increasing number of development proposals.

Chris Hall, the chief executive officer of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he had heard rumors of the proposed expansion and was pleased to hear that it was now moving forward.

“I think it’s just fantastic that there’s continued investment and continued growth in the downtown area,” Hall said.

Portland is known for its lively arts, music and culinary scene, but currently has a shortage of conference space, according to Lynn Tillotson, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s really great news,” Tillotson said. “Every little bit of extra space in this city helps. We’re at a disadvantage to other destinations because of a lack of event space.”

The project already has been reviewed and endorsed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board.

The Asylum opened in 1997, replacing the former Morganfield’s blues bar. It was one of three nightclubs to open that year and the only that remains. The venue primarily hosts regional and national performers in its concert area, which has a capacity for 465 people, but also features dance music in the basement. The venue also has regular hip-hop and Goth industrial nights.

By contrast, Port City Music Hall holds about 520 people and One Longfellow Square holds about 200, while larger venues like the Cross Insurance Arena seat 6,700 people, and the The State Theatre and Merill Auditorium have capacities of 1,800 and 1,900, respectively.

For those who only pass by the venue, the Asylum is perhaps best known for its graffiti mural, a 1,500-square-foot wall off Free Street decorated by local artists with the venue’s permission. Photos of the wall appear regularly on social media. Until 2011, the themes of the wall have varied, including a political mural depicting then-President George W. Bush and armageddon, as well as a spooky montage of Maine author Stephen King’s horror novels. Since then, artists have been offering varying themes about Portland, with the most recent mural illustrating sea-level rise.

The proposed expansion would demolish that wall, so the building can expand into an adjacent parking lot. However, Newman said that the owners are planning to dedicate a wall for graffiti artists along the north side of the property. She is hoping to provide removable panels for artists that can be lit up at night and removed so they be displayed elsewhere or sold to support local causes.

The owners also are considering ways they can incorporate graffiti art inside the building.

“We’re really hoping to include something special, but it might not be exactly the same,” she said. “But we really hope to include them.”

The expansion will add 5,200 square feet of space in the basement to make room for two dressing rooms for touring artists and a pre-function space. The nightclub area also will be improved.

The project will add nearly 5,500 square feet to the first floor and a 3,700-square-foot balcony served by a new elevator. A window would be added to the sports bar.

John Gladu, a 34-year-old Orrington resident, remembered when he saw metal band, Staind, at the Asylum for only a few dollars. Later, Soundbender, a local band in which he played drums, played shows at the venue over a five-year period.

“It had great sound and great lights,” Gladu said. “It had a really nice home vibe to it. It was a big room, but it didn’t feel huge like a cavern.”

Gladu welcomed the proposed changes.

“We have to accept change as it comes,” he said. “I think it will still be a destination for music in Maine.”

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This story was updated at 9:52 a.m. on March 31, 2016 to correct the spelling of the name of the CEO of the Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau.


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