The Board of Education took the next step in determining whether the long-vacant and seismically unsound Civic Auditorium has the potential to serve as the new competition gym and event space for Santa Monica High School at their April 20 meeting.
The Board voted in early March to conduct a feasibility study of the site and last week approved a $86,210 contract with NV5 as part of that process to conduct an environmental assessment of the levels of asbestos, lead and PCBs at the site and other hazardous materials that were used in construction in the 1950s when the auditorium was built.
After going unused since 2013, the Civic Auditorium site was deemed by the City as “surplus land” last year, a designation that gives priority to parks, affordable housing and school projects to be developed at the site so long as the building’s landmarked features are maintained.
While the district was the only group to express interest at the time when the board initially voted to approve the feasibility study, Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM), the City’s largest affordable housing developer, has since put forward a proposal to build affordable housing at the site, preserve and revitalize the auditorium structure and find ways to incorporate the site’s history into the project through a partnership with the Committee for Racial Justice.
Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez, who opposed conducting the feasibility study from the beginning, reiterated her previously stated stance that community input should be gathered before moving forward with the project in any way. The contract was initially part of the consent calendar, items that are passed as a group and often without discussion, but Leon-Vazquez pulled the contract for debate and said she wanted to delay study of the project’s viability.
“I think that before we move can forward, it is my belief that I think we should have more conversation at the table with the key people I think that should be at that table, and I think it should be some of us at the School Board to have those conversations with the City of Santa Monica in negotiating this and it can’t be done by representatives, by others from our departments but from us who will be actually voting these projects forward.”
Other board members said a study to determine if the Civic property is usable for education purposes (including the cost of rehabilitation) was a necessary first step, that no negotiations were underway yet due to the lack of a feasibility study and that deadlines imposed by State rules governing the sale of civic property required speedy action.
While Board Vice President Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein agreed that it is important to gather feedback, he said now is not the time and that it is first necessary to establish whether or not the project is even possible before it can be taken to community members for input.
“But that moment hasn’t happened yet, that just hasn’t happened, there will be a moment when the board will be able to determine by way of reflecting and deliberating whether there is a need to do x,y and z…” he said. “I don’t hear that this item tonight is that item for that conversation, I hear that this item is necessary for us to get to a place to make a determination whether or not this is a possible project.”
School Board Member Alicia Mignano voted to advance the study but said she did want community input before any final decisions were made.
“And there’s a lot of different opinions in our community… and I want to know what our community thinks we should do,” she said.
SMMUSD Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton noted that the District has a limited amount of time to complete the study within the priority window of the surplus land designation and told the board that the City had requested the district prepare an appraisal of the value of the property by June 1.
The board voted 6-1 to approve the environmental assessment contract, with Leon-Vasquez being the sole ‘no’ vote.