Santa Monica Lookout
To Preserve Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Revise Specific Plan, Says Expert Panel
By Jason Islas
May 13, 2013 -- In order to save the Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica should develop the land around the 55 year-old venue to pay for the more than $50 million needed in repairs and upgrades.
That was the news delivered by a panel of five experts from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Friday, all of whom agreed that in order to save the historic landmark, not only would there need to be major and expensive overhauls to the building but also to the land immediately around it.
As a result, the panel told the crowd gathered in the Main Library's MLK Auditorium that the City should alter the Civic Center Specific Plan to create a “cultural precinct” adjacent to the Auditorium.
“Of course you can save the Civic,” said John Alschuler, one of the panelists and city manager of Santa Monica during the 1980s. “But you need to do more.”
The Civic Auditorium “simply cannot compete in its current form,” said Alschuler, currently chair of HR&A Advisors, Inc., a real estate, economic development and energy efficiency consulting firm.
He called the 3,000 seat Auditorium -- which the City plans to shut down in June to save the $2 million a year it costs to keep open -- “functionally obsolete” and “tired.”
The City's plan to upgrade the historic Auditorium for about $50 million was indefinitely put on hold after Santa Monica's Redevelopment Agency (RDA) was shut down last February, depriving the City of the funds necessary to go forward with the project.
Saving the dilapidated building -- once the home of the Academy Awards and legendary concerts by James Brown and the Rolling Stones – is imperative, but not economical, the ULI panel said.
The panel called the $50 million repair estimate low, arguing that the Auditorium could need significantly more work to become an attractive venue, including improved audio-visual equipment and modernized seating.
In order to pay for that, the panel said, the City should look to develop the land currently occupied by the parking lot, which Alschuler called a “bad use of precious land.”
The panel recommended looking into bringing money-generating development into the area, such as a small hotel, retail, creative office space or even a residential development.
“There is no model for a self-sustaining cultural center,” Alschuler said.
Some activists want to tap the private sector to operate the venue so that the City would no longer have to pay for subsidies.
Mike Ross, CEO of The Pasadena Center Operating Co., said that the public sector should maintain some control over the Auditorium and, therefore, the programming.
He recommended establishing a public authority -- much like the one that currently governs the Santa Monica Pier -- that solely focuses on coordinating private interests.
Before moving forward, however, the panel said that residents will have to address the “enormous lack of consensus” surrounding what the Auditorium should be.
Friday's meeting was “very productive,” said Jessica Cusick, the City's cultural affairs manager. “It laid out all of the realities that the community needs to grapple with.”
There will be a community input meeting on June 4 at Virginia Avenue Park, Cusick said. Staff also plans to give a presentation to the City Council at its June 11 meeting.
Nina Fresco, who leads a group of activists called “Save the Civic,” said that Friday's panel discussion was “game changing” for some of the group.
Said Council member Kevin McKeown, who attended the meeting, "While today's consensus to save the Civic was heartening, the dollars involved and the choices to be made remain daunting.
“The only thing certain about the Civic is still uncertainty.”
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