The fate of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium remains in limbo this week after council delayed discussions regarding the site due to community outcry and an absent councilman.
An update on a potential sale of the property had been scheduled for a closed session discussion on July 18 but will now be held on July 25. While various community members came to the July 18 meeting to demand all discussions regarding the site be held in public, the item remains part of the closed session for next week.
The City-owned Civic Auditorium was built in 1958 and remains mostly in its original condition.
The 27,000 square feet main floor has a capacity of up to 3,000 seated and 3,500 standing people and the East Wing also provides 4,189 square feet and seating capacity of 500.
Designed by Santa Monica resident and internationally-known architect Welton Becket, the property hosted decades worth of cultural events including concerts by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Bad Religion, Pantera, Phish, Alic Cooper, Prince, Motley Crue, U2, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, Black Sabbath, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and Chuck Berry.
The Academy Awards were also held in the venue during the 1960s.
The property is zoned as recreational use under the City’s Civic Center Specific Plan and the City designated the Civic Auditorium as a City landmark in 2002 to preserve key historic features such as the exterior façade and certain interior design elements such as the configuration of the lobby, the two original staircases, the volume of the Main Hall space and several other elements noted in the landmark designation.
However, the property is seismically unsafe. The main portion of the building formally closed in 2013 but a meeting space in the East Wing remained open for community meetings and small events through early 2020.
Two attempts to secure a tenant or private partner to operate the building have failed. The City received a single applicant when it sent out a request for a private partnership in 2009 but those negotiations fell apart when the State eliminated local redevelopment agencies and City Hall lost access to about $50 million that had been set aside for necessary seismic improvements and ADA upgrades to the building.
A second attempt to find a private partnership failed in 2019 when the city again received a single applicant but could not provide enough support or funding to secure a deal.
As it stands today, the city has not budgeted for and does not have staff to rehabilitate and reopen the site on its own.
In 2022, Council declared the property “surplus” in a public meeting after receiving what was described at the time as “renewed interest in the Civic Auditorium from prospective commercial operators.”
State law, known as the Surplus Land Act (SLA), requires municipalities to declare property as “surplus” or “exempt” if they plan to sell or lease it to a private party. There are specific rules for exempting a property and at the time, staff said the property had to be declared as surplus to facilitate a long term lease with a private tenant.
However, the SLA requires a handful of uses (affordable housing, parks and education) be given priority access to surplus land before its owner can move on to another use.
Following the Civic’s designation, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District and Community Corporation of Santa Monica expressed interest in the site and negotiations with both are ongoing.
An update to those negotiations triggered outcry from residents this week who demanded the process be halted entirely or at least opened to public scrutiny.
“I strongly believe the Civic Auditorium should not be in the Surplus Land Act process,” said Ann Bowman. ” It is the foundation of our Civic Center Specific Plan which was put together with extensive public input so it’s not ‘nonessential’ as you called it last October, and it’s our city’s most iconic public asset, both literally and from a psychological standpoint.”
Councilman Phil Brock had previously announced a need to leave the July 18 meeting early and requested the update on the negotiations be delayed pending his return to the July 25 meeting. However, the item will remain on the closed season agenda because property negotiations are not required to be held in public, much to the dismay of residents who spoke out this week.
“When we talk about giving away or selling this the Civic Center, it’s done in closed session negotiation with parties who have not had public input to them,” said Nancy Coleman. “And it’s not appropriate to do at all.”
Councilman Oscar de la Torre did ask for the City Attorney’s office to create a one-sheet explainer regarding the SLA to educate the public regarding the laws implementation and requirements.