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S.M.a.r.t Column: Civic Center Debate

Civic Center Debate

Last year, the City declared the Civic Center Auditorium surplus property after a decade of neglect and disuse. The auditorium had been closed because of seismic concerns and the lack of accessibility. It’s not unusual for a sixty-three-year-old auditorium to need a significant upgrade as entertainment tastes and technology change and as newly updated codes start to make such buildings obsolete or even dangerous. The debate on what to do to reactivate our defunct Civic Center auditorium had been sputtering along since the City’s negotiations with the Nederlander group (a potential operator) failed, compounded by the State of California eliminating the Redevelopment Funds, which could have been used for its restoration. 

Finally, the City is now reeling from the impact of Covid and the $200,000,000+ pedophile case payouts, so at this time has no funds to attempt its own civic auditorium rehabilitation. If its seismic vulnerability is truly as serious as represented, the longer we wait to address this flaw, the greater the possibility of it being damaged in the next big (overdue) earthquake. Such damage may not even cause a complete collapse but might still cause enough damage to make the building prohibitively expensive to repair. In that case, demolition might still result even without full seismic destruction. However, it was undamaged by the 1972 and 1994 quakes, so the alleged seismic deficiency still needs to be verified. In addition, rumor has it that at one time, it was considered a civil defense asset, so it must have had some inherent strength. Given these uncertainties, there is still a prudent sense of urgency to restore this building. We do not want to be like those dams in Libya. 

Thus, the City has entered into negotiations with the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District as a candidate to restore and operate the building, either as a tenant or as an owner. The City is awaiting their formal proposal of what they intend to do with the building, which seems to involve converting it into a gym with options for probable weekend uses as a music/performing arts venue. The School District will need to pass a resident-paid bond to fund their restoration and possibly purchase this beloved landmarked building. The School District has a long, successful history of passing school bonds, so it might be able to raise the funds relatively quickly. The City could also pass a bond if there is enough public support for this building.

But many residents are concerned that this building, with its incredible historical pedigree, may be completely altered or even demolished by the School District if it becomes the owner. School districts exist as separate legal entities from cities and are therefore not bound by the constraints of a local landmarked designation. So substantial alteration or even demolition is a potential danger if the School District becomes the owner. 

Because of this possibility and because the school district has been repeatedly neglectful of its buildings (e.g., SMASH/John Muir have been closed for over a year to fix leaks) and disdainful of its historical assets (e.g., demolishing the High School History Building), a citizen’s group called Save the Civic was formed to advocate for an alternative agent for the Civic’s resurrection. 

S.M.a.r.t often offers guest columns for credible advocates in important debates on public issues. Attached is Save the Civic’s September 18th public announcement for your consideration. 

Dear friends of the Civic,

Ever since we began our mission to stop the City from selling off our beloved, historic Civic Auditorium, we have found ourselves submerged in the world of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, which by law is the only entity whose offers our City Council can currently entertain. (Should the Council reject the District’s proposal, it can then field other offers.)  

One of the District’s main selling points to the community has been that it will pay for the Civic’s operating costs by renting it out up to one hundred days a year. From the beginning, we thought that wasn’t a good idea. The School District is in the education business, not the venue rental business. It simply does not have the experience or resources to properly manage a property of this scale.

Now we have proof.

We’ve just discovered that the District is surprisingly not good at the venue rental business. How not good? It lost money renting out school facilities last year. That’s right, the School District LOST MONEY renting out Barnum Hall and other venues. How do we know? Because this week, it asked the School Board to authorize $438,502 in unrestricted funds to pay for those losses! Read its request here.

We’re sure that $438,502 could have been better spent on other school needs, but how the District allocates money is not our issue.

What IS our issue is that clearly, the School District should not be in the Civic rental business. And by the way, who do you think is going to bail it out if it fails at that endeavor? Us!  

Instead, the City should partner with an experienced group that can run the Civic as a concert and performing arts center; a group that knows how to do it and, importantly, in the event of failure, will not use precious school funds to bail it out. We have found such a group. And if we’ve found one, we know the City can find others.

But first, our City Council must reject the School District’s proposal.

Let’s restore the Civic as a world-class venue for music and the arts. And let’s keep the School District focused on education, not venue rentals.

For more information and to register so we can contact you when we need people to reach out to the City Council, please visit our website at savethecivic.org.

By SM.a.r.t

S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Thane Roberts, Architect; Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect; Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission; Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA & Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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