Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (File photo)

PICO BLVD — Dozens of community members gathered in Virginia Avenue Park Tuesday night to discuss ways to restore and manage the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, potentially returning it to its former place of prominence as a multi-purpose facility capable of handling performances as well as its now-famous cat shows.

That would be expensive and potentially a mistake, say some who hope to extend the scope of the vision across the street to the east to include the Santa Monica High School campus and the two performance spaces already operating.

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.

School officials and some community members envision a cultural campus in the area that connects the Civic with Samohi’s Memorial Greek Amphitheatre and Barnum Hall to create a performance trifecta in which each space can specialize rather than cannibalize each other’s businesses.

Such a focus would free Barnum Hall to host primarily unamplified musical performances, while the Greek could claim its spot as the Hollywood Bowl of the Westside, complete with uninterrupted views to the ocean when bond money completes final improvements to the space, said Carey Upton, director of Theater Operations & Facility Permits at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

At the same time, the Civic could excel as an auditorium with a monopoly on musicals, plays and other kinds of performances not suited to the other two stages. Others see it as an event space, meant for gala fundraisers.

“We’re very interested in finding a way to work together to maximize our creative spaces and performance spaces so that they work together and serve different purposes,” Upton said.

The partnership with the district had weight with Sepp Donahower, a former concert promoter and 20-year Santa Monica resident who presented the idea almost a month ago in an eight-page submission to the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that interviewed him and other members of the community to create ideas on how to save the Civic.

No one from the school district was invited to participate, Upton said.

“I believe the site and the auditorium should become part of a new community cultural plaza,” Donahower wrote. “Adjacent to the site is the beautiful 1,250-seat Barnum Hall and the wonderful 3,400-seat Memorial Greek Theatre, which could be connected at a later date providing an unequaled cultural and entertainment center.”

Add to that the $47 million Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square and throw in some restaurants and City Hall could be handed a cultural space to bridge the gap between its north and south sides, otherwise divided by Interstate 10, said Phil Brock, a Recreation and Parks commissioner and talent manager.

Brock has seen his own clients leave Santa Monica to go to Beverly Hills and Century City because they had no place to throw events. He sees the Civic Auditorium as a solution to that problem, in conjunction with the performance spaces just across the street.

“There’s nowhere to host an event with over 450 people in the city right now,” Brock said.

It’s a use with some demand. Jonathan Wolf, executive vice president of the Independent Film & Television Alliance, told a crowd of business people in January that the Civic was critical to the return of the American Film Market (AFM), the world’s largest film market in which thousands of movie industry professionals from over 80 countries gather to pitch their movies.

Wolf saw the Civic as a possible space for red carpet premieres, hearkening back to its 1950s history in which it hosted the Academy Awards.

AFM was expected to add $20 million to the local economy over the eight days it was present in 2012, according to officials with the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The partnership with the school district is not without precedent.

The district and City Hall had plans to join the Civic Center to the high school campus in the Civic Center Joint Use Plan, an application of redevelopment funds that would have upgraded the Greek, installed a new football field and built a gymnasium.

That same source of funding was meant to pump $50 million into the Civic for seismic improvements and a rehabilitation to make the performance space attractive to the Nederlander Group, a professional management firm that would have taken over bookings for the landmarked facility.

When that money fell through, Nederlander backed out and the school district stalled until voters passed a $385 million in November that will provide the necessary funds to fix the theater, build the gym and make other improvements to the 100-year-old campus.

Eventually, that will include the relocation of a swimming pool that would allow officials to build a shell around the Greek, transforming the space’s acoustics and allowing for professional-quality outdoor performances, Upton said.

The process to define the future of the Civic is still in its earliest stages, said Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager with City Hall.

When redevelopment money disappeared, officials found themselves back at square one with the aging facility, and are only now beginning to explore other ideas than the public ownership/private management model embraced with the Nederlander Group.

Other ideas of the evening included forming a commission to consider all of the community needs and possible uses for the Civic, as well as the acknowledgment that more parking, dining and other facilities would be needed to bolster the location.

The possibility of a management structure of a publicly-appointed board and independent executive director, similar to that of the Santa Monica Pier Corporation, seemed to hold appeal with the crowd as well.

Frank Gruber, a longtime local columnist and commissioner, cautioned the crowd about getting too attached to any single idea, lest they form a “consensus Christmas tree” with too many requirements that no single entity could fulfill.

“Root for what you want, but be willing to put some ideas out the door,” Gruber said.

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