On March 11, City Hall obtained a loan of $60 million from Wells Fargo to jump start four Redevelopment Agency capital projects: the Palisades Garden Walk, new Pico Library, rebuilt Parking Structure 6 and Civic Auditorium renovation.

The four projects are budgeted for $112.3 million, not counting interest payments on the $60 million loan. City funds have already been spent on design, engineering and community meetings. The initial infusion of cash will get the projects underway physically. A combination of financing programs will be utilized to complete the projects, including Redevelopment Agency funding.

If Gov. Jerry Brown dissolves redevelopment agencies to help mitigate the state’s budget deficit, $5 billion in redevelopment funds statewide will disappear into the maw of the state treasury to pay for education, MediCal and other costs. This makes me ask why aren’t local school cheerleaders pushing for dissolving the Redevelopment Agency to free-up some $1 billion Gov. Brown says will go to public school education? Perhaps I’ll mull that in a future column.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent on Palisades Garden Walk and Town Square for preliminary designs and to “address connectivity, access, play, water elements, lighting, landscaping and historic preservation.” Cost estimates are now $35.9 million with construction to commence in Fall of 2011; $35.9 million for 7 acres of public park and not a soccer field in sight? Does anybody else think this ego exercise is excessive?

Then there’s the new Pico Branch Library in Virginia Avenue Park. Designs are moving along but this bloated project is currently budgeted at $11.4 million, down from its original estimate of $12.5 million that included underground parking which has since been eliminated.

This project is still $1,373 per square foot or about six times the national average for library construction. City Hall’s stonewall is up because nobody’s explaining why it’s so damn expensive. Council will review the project in the fall and maybe demand a realistic budget. Realistic budget? Probably too much to hope for in Spenda Monica.

A new Downtown Parking Structure 6 is progressing toward design, permits and a demolition of the existing parking facility. Total cost of construction: approximately $40 million.

Finally, there’s the Civic Auditorium renovation. City council authorized City Manager Rod Gould to negotiate terms with the Nederlander Organization for management and booking entertainment events for the aging white elephant.

Therefore, major upgrades are necessary for the auditorium to function effectively as a commercial theater/concert venue. Work is scheduled to begin in fall or winter of 2012 and last 18 to 24 months. Council has preliminarily allocated $25 million to partially fund seismic and disability-friendly renovations — a cost that will surely increase.

Complete renovation of the aging auditorium could run as high as $45 million — about the amount it cost to build Santa Monica College’s Broad Stage. Depending on whether the present surface parking lot will still be available, a modern, multi-level parking facility close to the Civic could run another $30 million plus. Don’t kid yourself, Virginia. A renovated Civic auditorium without convenient parking is doomed to failure.

There are those, including me, who wonder if this outdated 1950’s-era auditorium is viable in today’s highly competitive entertainment venue market. It’s already an annual multi-million dollar drain on City Hall. And, although the Nederlander Organization is a top notch programmer, it would appear that the Civic will still be a big money loser.

In what I consider to be the worst planning blunder of the last 50 years, SMC built their Madison Theater, now the Broad Stage, on leased school district property on a no-man’s land between 10th and 11th streets off Santa Monica Boulevard.

However, if the Broad Stage and its companion performance space The Edye were located adjacent to an updated Civic Auditorium with added art galleries, cafes and outdoor performance spaces, then Santa Monica would have a Civic Center that would be a true cultural jewel benefiting a “world-class city” and renovation would make sense.

Instead, we have a hodge-podge of a Civic Center with 7 acres of proposed park; a child education center and a mixed-income, 320 unit housing project that will join existing city and county buildings, parking lots and a corporate headquarters — open mostly only during weekday business hours. Without evening/weekend activities, cafes and other cultural destinations, it’s obvious that a renovated Civic is just piling fiscal disaster on fiscal disaster.

There are nearly $300 million in vanity projects on City Hall’s Redevelopment Agency wish list including an expanded Memorial Park, Expo Light Rail-related infrastructure, a Downtown Colorado Avenue esplanade, lots of affordable housing, previously mentioned Civic Center projects, a freeway cap for expanded Civic Center green space and more. The world hasn’t seen monument building of this scale since Ramesses II.

However, if the state absorbs redevelopment money, most of these projects will vanish like Houdini’s rabbit and we’ll be left holding an empty hat.

Bill can be reached at mr.bilbau@gmail.com

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