After years of sparsely attended meetings, the Civic Working Group recently learned the secret to a well-attended public meeting: start a rumor about eliminating athletic fields from your project.

Hundreds of residents packed into a standing-room-only meeting on May 20 to demand athletic fields be made a requirement of any proposed project to revitalize the site.

The Civic Working Group is an advisory body tasked with making recommendations to the City Council about the future of the Civic property located along Pico Boulevardbetween 4th and Main streets. The group has been directed to work with specific limitations. For example, the building itself is a landmark and can’t be demolished, the site includes a landmarked statue (Chain Reaction) and there is overwhelming support for the project to focus on cultural uses. It has also been required to present recommendations regarding funding any potential project.

Aside from its immovable “guiding principals” the group is trying to incorporate the needs of the community into its recommendations. Open space is a requirement for the project and over the years some Santa Monica residents have expressed a strong desire for that space to be new athletic fields.

The Working Group has been discussing language that could be used to develop specific proposals for the site and in recent meetings that language evolved to acknowledge the community’s desire for sports fields but it falls short of mandating sports fields as a condition of the project.

“We didn’t want to throw out the Civic because we demanded a sports field,” said Working Group Chair Nina Fresco.

Citizen speakers at the May 20 meeting were mostly cordial, civil and even complementary of the work being done by the volunteer group but residents were unanimous in their demand for sports fields on the site.

Andrew Browning said he has seen little tangible evidence of community benefits promised by commercial redevelopment elsewhere in the city and said the Civic site was a chance to help local families.

“Santa Monica voters overwhelming want a field, you have promised one and to keep your good standing with voters, you need to deliver one,” he said.

Many speakers were representing youth sports organizations and several were from Santa Monica High School. The school’s current fields are across the street from the Civic property, prompting many to request an expansion of the school’s facilities into the Civic lot.

Samohi junior Charlie Whitesell said the lack of fields on campus becomes dangerous when different teams are required to share the same space. He said construction has removed field space while at the same time two new teams have been formed.

“An increase in space would allow teams to have practice space to push themselves to become the best teams possible,” he said.

School board member Laurie Lieberman said residents have contacted the school board about the issue but the board has not formally taken a position.

“I’m here as an individual,” she said. “The primary thing I want to say is it’s evident to anyone that the biggest reason all these people are here is we have a shortage of field space in our city.”

She said the city’s process was likely to be a long one, but one that she had no desire to circumvent. Instead, she urged city officials to consider where fields could be built quickly.

“Examine the Civic Center as one option but consider all the other options that might be more viable in the short term,” she said.

Some speakers suggested athletic fields were being dumped in favor of commercial development or that open space was being reduced to make room for hotels.

Fresco said neither of those statements is correct.

“There has never, ever been close to a hint of anything said that there would be no open space,” she said.

Other speakers referenced the 2005 Civic Center Specific Plan that lists athletic fields as part of the future for the site.

“A field is in the (site specific) plan and that’s important and we acknowledge that,” said Fresco. “But also, a lot of people feel a cultural campus isn’t necessarily the kind of place where kids are doing sports right next to a world class performance venue.”

By the end of the night, Fresco said the Working Group chose to maintain the proposed language that lists athletic fields as a strongly desired, but not mandatory, part of the project. However, the group developed a supplementary list that will be included in their recommendations to council. Items on the new list are considered precursors to development at the Civic but are not necessarily directly connected to the project. Fresco said that list includes a directive to the Council to satisfy the community need for athletic fields.

Fresco said her group doesn’t have final responsibility for deciding what will happen at the site, or even for deciding the language that will be used to develop the proposals. The Working Group will make recommendations to the City Council and it will be up to the elected officials to decide what happens.

There will be another opportunity to weigh in on the future of the Civic at the third community workshop on June 13 at 9:30 a.m. at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, East Wing.

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