The long vacant, seismically unsafe and recently “surplus” Civic Center Auditorium could become a gym facility for Santa Monica High School under a new proposal that could see the property sold to the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD).

The SMMUSD Board will discuss a potential deal at their March 2 meeting with a request from staff to authorize a feasibility study on the purchase.

The Civic Auditorium at 1855 Main Street has been vacant since 2013 and was designated as “surplus” land last year. Municipal property that is unused receives the designation under a state law that stipulates affordable housing, parks / recreation, or school uses have priority on purchase and redevelopment of surplus land.

Samohi is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-phase, multi-million dollar rehabilitation plan. While some large projects are complete, such as the recently opened Discovery Building and pool, upcoming phases include a new gym over the current tennis courts.

The District expressed interest in meeting its construction needs using the existing building in January and the two agencies have discussed a potential sale behind closed doors. District staff acknowledged some significant questions and challenges have emerged including if the building can be brought up to State standards for an educational facility, can its landmarked features be preserved while meeting school needs and costs (to purchase, renovate and operate).

Staff said costs to purchase and adapt the facility might be offset by the value of the property in its existing condition plus potential savings accrued by streamlining existing construction plans on the school campus.

“There also may be a value to the District preserving a historically significant building (particularly to the local community) but that “value” is hard, if not impossible, to quantify or justify as meriting the expenditure of District funds,” said a letter from staff to the Board.

Other challenges have less obvious solutions. If the building can’t be brought up to the Division of the State Architect (DSA) standards, the deal would be called off.

“There are also a series of potential issues which need to be considered. The Coastal Commission will need to approve any construction and repurpose of the building,” said the letter. “The lack of parking resulting in a reduction of beach access is a concern of the Coastal Commission as expressed during the City’s process to develop the Civic Center field. The fact that when the property was acquired by the City it resulted in the displacement of an African American community will need to be addressed. CEQA, zoning, CDE approval and historical considerations will all need to be factored in as they can stop, delay, or modify the District’s intended use of the property.”

However, the plan has some attractive qualities.

Reusing the property would eliminate the need to build new facilities on Samohi’s campus. The Civic would become the competition gymnasium (the proposed Blue Gym) and would eliminate the need to to replace the current music building and relocate the track and field and the baseball and softball fields. That would decrease overall construction costs at Samohi and speed completion of the current construction projects by a decade. While specific numbers are impossible to determine at this early stage, officials said cost estimates are in the hundreds of millions of dollars but it’s possible the costs associated with rehabilitating the property could be similar to the amount saved by avoiding construction on the main campus.

Council has been looking for a way to redevelop the site for decades. Early plans called for an entertainment/arts complex but those plans never took off. In recent years, a large section of the parking lot was converted into playing fields used by Samohi and SMC used part of the lot for a combination teaching facility / daycare.

A large water conservation project was installed adjacent to the Civic last year but little, if any, progress has been made toward reusing the building.

“On a positive note, the District stands in a unique position in that it might be the only entity with the resources and the will to take on such a project, and for whom repair and upgrade of the facility could be economically viable,” said the letter.

School Board meets on March 2 at 5:30 p.m. Agendas are posted online at

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...