MAIN LIBRARY — The Santa Monica Civic Center Auditorium can survive past its planned June closure, but it will have to revolutionize its layout, amenities and management structure if it plans to compete with other entertainment facilities in Los Angeles, a team of policy experts told residents Friday afternoon.
Members of the Public Policy Institute, including former Santa Monica City Manager John Alschuler, recommended an entire reboot on existing thinking about the 10-acre parcel that lies to the south of City Hall, even contemplating hotel, residential or commercial development on the site to subsidize the arts center, which could be run by a separate nonprofit organization with an appointed board.
Gone was talk of a soccer field to be shared with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, instead replaced by an urban cultural center where patrons of the Civic could attend a show or conference and then walk a short distance for a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
“We have to give people a reason to go there beyond nostalgia,” Alschuler said.
The City Council voted in October to mothball the Civic by June 30 after City Hall lost its redevelopment agency, which was going to fund a $51 million renovation of the aging facility.
That caused Nederlander Group, a private management firm, to back out of a deal to run and book the Civic, which had run at a deficit for years.
Rather than try to find money to make basic seismic repairs and put out $2 million to subsidize the money-losing operation while facing other budget pressures, the City Council decided to cut the city’s losses and mothball the facility at the relatively low cost of $185,000.
That closure could result in even more damage to the center should existing systems fall into disrepair from disuse, said D’Lynn Waldron, who put on multiple productions at the site.
That $51 million figure could be half of what’s needed to bring the facility back to life and ready to enter the ring with the other performance spaces in the Los Angeles region, said Dan Massiello of Kosmont Companies, a real estate advisory firm for municipalities.
Between the center’s state of disrepair and antiquated facilities, the decision to save it is an emotional one, based on its importance to the identity of the city and to its residents, the team said.
“If this was simply a question of economic logic, or if this was simply a question of quality of the performance space, we would be recommending that the building be torn down and rebuilt. It is certainly not a cost effective thing to do to preserve it,” Alschuler said.
That option was taken off the table for this discussion, but it will force residents and City Hall to think long and hard on what they want at the site, and how they plan to pay for it.
Operating revenues alone will never be enough to fund the debt service on loans needed to revitalize the facility, and traditional uses of the center will have to stop, said Mike Ross, who runs the Pasadena Convention Center.
At present, 40 percent of the center’s use comes from city departments, which pay nothing for the service.
The center must charge industry rates and manage the Civic at industry standards, something it struggled to do when managed by the Community & Cultural Services Department.
It also needs to modernize its facility to make it attractive not only to its traditional cat shows, but to musicals, operas, conventions and other special events.
That could mean reconfiguring the interior so that 2,000 of the 3,000 seats retract at the push of a button, while the remaining 1,000-seat capacity hovers above in a balcony, said John Sergio Fisher, an architect who specializes in theater consultation.
Improved acoustics, projection and comfier seats are also musts, he said.
This idealized version of the Civic will cost an estimated $4 to $6 million each year, and where that money will come from is at the heart of a touchstone issue for Santa Monicans.
The Civic Center sits like an island in the midst of a huge surface parking lot. In the eyes of developers, that land is gold.
A 300-room hotel could provide $3 million in hotel room taxes that go straight to City Hall’s General Fund, and a relatively dense residential development could bring in something similar, said Tom Wulf of Lowe Enterprises, a real estate firm.
Other options include a bond, approved by Santa Monica voters, or the sale of naming rights.
Ultimately, there is no silver bullet for the challenges facing the Civic, and it will take a lot of community involvement to develop a clear direction for the site and what residents are willing to accept to save it.
That will be necessary before going to private industry for potential partners to develop the site, Alschuler said.
The team came to its conclusions after a month of looking through a briefing book delivered by city officials, and one day of interviews.
Nina Fresco, a Landmarks commissioner and member of Save the Santa Monica Civic, wants to keep the door wide open to ideas that will preserve the historic structure, which became a local landmark 11 years ago.
“We want it saved, and we will be as open as possible,” she said.
The next community meeting will take place in Virginia Avenue Park on June 4 at 7:30 p.m. The matter will go back to the City Council on June 11.