Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITY HALL — The City Council this week affirmed its decision to close the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium by July 2013 during a study session examining the future of the landmarked facility in the wake of the loss of over $50 million that would have restored it.

The Civic was scheduled to close for renovations at that time, but the funding has since fallen through and the aging auditorium sucks $2 million out of City Hall every year it’s open.

Councilmember Bobby Shriver, who ultimately crafted the motion to close, said he was concerned with stanching the bleeding while a future City Council figures out what to do with the facility.

“Maybe that will be the intent of a future council to not mothball it, but I would like to save the $2 million tonight if that’s possible,” Shriver said.

Only Councilmember Kevin McKeown voted against the measure out of concern that once boarded up, the historic building would stay that way, and that staff members would lose their jobs.

Although some staff have put themselves on a transfer list to compete for other jobs in the city, not all have done so.

“If we decide to close it tonight, we’re offered two options that are not equal in import,” McKeown said. “If we say tonight it closes on June 30 no matter what a new council thinks, it’s pretty irreversible because they will have made plans to close it.”

City Manager Rod Gould pointed out that his staff is already operating under the assumption that the Civic would be closed. City officials are not taking reservations after June 2013.

The 3,000-seat Civic Auditorium was set to be renovated and given over to the Nederlander organization for booking. Nederlander runs other performance spaces in the Los Angeles area, including the Pantages Theatre and the Greek Theatre.

The future of the facility was thrown into question after Santa Monica’s Redevelopment Agency — and all the money to fund the rehab — bit the dust in February 2012.

The news about redevelopment funding came down just as staff had begun presenting a concept for the restored event space to local commissions, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager with City Hall.

For the council’s study session, staff looked at broad paths for the Civic: partial renovation that would cover basic seismic and disabilities improvements and a roof replacement; full renovation as a multi-purpose performing arts center; looking beyond its current incarnation and redevelop it as a retail center or another use; or demolition.

In past planning efforts, the community has asked that the Civic be restored and remain a cultural center, which left staff focused on the “full renovation” option, despite the fact that it would be cheaper to build a state-of-the-art facility rather than rehab the old one.

Whichever option the council ultimately endorses, staff stressed that the Civic cannot continue as it is.

The Civic isn’t seismically-safe and operates at a deficit of approximately $2 million per year. Although originally established as an enterprise fund, the Civic has required a subsidy from City Hall since the 2006-07 fiscal year.

It needs a basic infusion of between $8 and $10 million to do the most fundamental safety improvements, and quite a bit more to accomplish the other goals. The most expensive idea carried an $80 million price tag for the adaptive reuse of the building as a museum.

If City Hall wants to do anything other than mothball it — which comes at a relatively small cost of $185,000 a year — it will need to find ways to pay for it, Cusick said.

“Whatever we do, we’ll need to cobble together multiple funding sources unless my white knight is out there with $51 million and someone forgot to tell me,” Cusick said.

Council members concentrated their comments on the second range of options that focused on a full renovation with either a private party coming in to operate it or leasing the auditorium to a presenter.

A third option involved bringing in a developer to renovate the facility and develop the adjacent site.

Even with the promise of $51 million in public funding to sweeten the deal, only Nederlander came forward to work at the Civic Auditorium, said Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis.

“We’re going to have to accept that there may have to be some physical changes to the site, whether it means using the east wing differently or adding to the site somehow, changing the interior to make it more flexible and useable,” she said.

A hybrid option involving some level of retail or community meeting space also piqued their interest, but they left it to city staff to flesh out and bring in “visionaries” that might have a fresh concept for the space.

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