Civic: The Civic Auditorium with Samohi visible in the background. Grace Adams

The City’s long unloved Civic Auditorium now has two suitors vying for its attention according to real estate negotiation information coming to City Council on Tuesday.

The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District professed a desire to purchase the property earlier this year but a secret admirer has emerged with Community Corporation of Santa Monica also entering the negotiation process.

The Civic Auditorium at 1855 Main Street has been vacant since 2013. 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.

The property 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.

SMMUSD’s interest is tied to the ongoing rehabilitation of Santa Monica High School. 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 and officials have said those goals could be met by purchasing and rehabilitating the Civic Auditorium.

While finding a new use for the site is appealing to many, it is not a slam dunk by any means. The building would have to meet stringent State standards as an educational facility, its landmarked features may conflict with the new needs and there are questions about parking given the recent conversion of part of the parking lot to playing fields.

However, SMMUSD officials still feel the proposal has enough merit to warrant further study.

“The SMMUSD Board of Education approved three items at its March 2 meeting that would allow for a feasibility study of the Civic Auditorium to determine if a potential acquisition by the District would create better outcomes for the Samohi Campus Plan as well as for the residents of Santa Monica,” said Carey Upton, Chief Operations Officer.

However, a new bidding group has emerged with Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM) at its head.

CCSM is the city’s largest affordable housing developer and has built more than 1,900 affordable homes in Santa Monica and has 50 units in the City of LA.

The organization said its proposal would preserve the Civic Auditorium as a landmarked building with a new use while building a new affordable housing project on some of the surrounding land. They plan to partner with a commercial developer who would handle rehabilitation and reoccupation of the Civic and said they would work with the Committee for Racial Justice to incorporate the area’s history into the project.

“We will work with CRJ as a thought partner because we know the history of the Belmar Triangle area and there’s a lot of restoration work to further justice as it relates to what happened on that property,” said CCSM Executive Director Tara Barauskas.

The area used to be home to a significant Black population that was displaced during construction of the freeway and the Civic itself.

“We would build affordable housing but would also do some community engagement to figure out what else should be done there,” she said.

Council will hear both proposals in closed session on Tuesday. State law allows property negotiations to be conducted in secret and officials will only issue a report if a decision is made.

Council will meet on Tuesday, April 11 in City Hall (1685 Main Street). Closed session begins at 5:30 p.m. and meetings are available online via the City’s website or Youtube channel.

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Matthew Hall

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...