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Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Renovation Needs Open Space

June 11, 2013

Back in April 2002 while on the City Council, I voted to uphold the Historic Landmark designation (http://www.smgov.net/departments/council/agendas/2002/20020409/m040902.htm) for the Civic Auditorium.

Today I strongly support exploring ways to renovate and revive the Civic Auditorium. However, I want to raise strong concerns about the absence of discussion in the Civic Auditorium staff report for 8-A (http://www.smgov.net/departments/council/agendas/2013/20130611/s2013061108-A.htm) of the community's long-standing commitment to open, green space at the corner of 4th/Pico, where the parking lot is currently.

Not only does the most recent version (2005) of Civic Center Specific Plan (CCSP) specify 4th/Pico as open space - see #1 Civic Auditorium Park (http://www01.smgov.net/planning/CCSP-Final0605/2-OpenSpace.pdf). But its planning as open space goes back at least 20 years, to the CCSP originally approved by the City Council in November 1993 (http://www.smgov.net/departments/council/agendas/1993/19931123/m19931123.html), and the prior years of discussion leading up to it.

The planning for 4th/Pico as open space also overlapped the community process of the creation of the 1997 Open Space Element (OSE). As a result, the commitment of this highly valuable parcel to help meet the City's open space deficit has already been counted on in the City's planning inventory towards meetings its open space goals, as shown in the chart on page 40 of OSE (http://www.smgov.net/uploadedFiles/Departments/CCS/Places_Parks_Beach/Parks/Open_Space_Element.pdf).

Furthermore, the open, green space planned for 4th/Pico was part of a major community development compromise to accept the unprecedented density of housing to go in at the Civic Center Village, by balancing it with adjacent open space. This was both a land use decision that united 'slow-growthers' and 'smart growthers' behind a common development vision for the Civic Center, as well as a political approach that brought together the affordable housing and open space communities, in supporting the Council's spending of $53 million in redevelopment funds to purchase the RAND land.

Finally, the decision to build the large parking structure behind the County Court building (and block the westward views from the Doubletree Hotel and the northward views to the Santa Monica Mountains from 4th/Pico) was premised upon removing the surface parking from 4th/Pico, so that 4th/Pico could be converted into a public open space, not turned into more development.

None of this history of agreements and tradeoffs was included in the staff report, nor were they part of the June 4th community meeting on the future of the Civic Auditorium.

Instead, characterizations of 4th/Pico have been limited to calling it a parking lot. There is no discussion of the potential loss of an expensive, irreplaceable future open space parcel at 4th/Pico, nor of the years of community process that went into committing to it. Rather, large parts of the staff report focus on developing 4th/Pico, and the processes to determine by whom, and how to pay for it -- without acknowledgement that this would entail a major change in land use designation from open space to commercial, nor the undoing of long-standing community agreements on how land will be used and shared, nor even the necessity of a community process to debate such major changes.

Other than the enthusiasm of some of those who want to preserve the Civic Auditorium - and of course some developers -- there is no formal indication that the rest of community wants to rezone and develop 4th/Pico. Therefore, no process to renovate the Civic Auditorium can start with that as its premise, nor assume that such an agreement is even probable.

In addition, any public financing to help renovate the Civic will need the support of the Open Space community. That community is not going to support such a financing measure, if they feel that they've had a $20+ million asset taken without discussion, and then are being asked to pay for the pleasure.

For all these reasons, I believe the primary alternative the City should be exploring is retention and renovation of the Civic Auditorium, along with simultaneously creating the adjacent open, green space that is already planned for 4th/Pico. Doing this would respect years of community process and existing zoning, and would unite, rather than divide the Arts, Preservation and Open Space communities. It would also avoid unnecessarily dragging Civic Auditorium preservation into highly charged, larger development debates.

A community planning process to accomplish this should evaluate cultural uses for the Civic Auditorium, along with complementary/symbiotic design of the adjacent open space. There should also be some flexibility to evaluate modest additions to the Civic Auditorium -- behind it along Pico Bl. and next to the Civic Auditorium's East Wing.

Such a process would likely bring the community together, and could move quickly to lead a public vote in 2016, as the staff report for 8-A suggests is desirable.

By contrast, any plan to develop 4th/Pico with buildings as part of a strategy to renovate the Civic Auditorium, will de facto re-open a mutli-year community process about open space, development and density for the area. That would activate large numbers of open space supporters and others who don't today realize that the loss of open space at 4th/Pico is at stake, and/or that new development is planned in its place. That friction could easily delay or defeat a 2016 vote.

A Civic Auditorium renovation approach that simultaneously realizes multiple community goals for culture, historic preservation and open space is preferable to one that pits them against each other. Let's ensure that planning for the Civic Auditorium's preservation brings us together as a community to meet our common and varied goals, rather than tearing us apart by pitting them -- and us -- against each other.

Here is also a short video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAkl60MrX-U) from the June 4 community meeting where I make some of these same points.

Signed,
Michael Feinstein, former Santa Monica City Conucil member and mayor


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