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

After nearly six months of research, the public was presented with a plan to restore the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a plan that will be moving forward at least for the moment.

Hearing the Samohi campus plan feasibility study for the auditorium, an ambitious project carrying a price tag of over $226 million thus far, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education voted 5-2 in favor of developing a communications plan to discuss the auditorium project with local stakeholders. Board members Alicia Mignano, Jennifer Smith, Laurie Lieberman, Jon Kean and board vice-president Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein were for the motion, while member Stacy Rouse and board president Maria Leon-Vazquez opposed.

The board directed staff, led by Chief Operations Officer Carey Upton, to conduct a feasibility study on the auditorium project in early March. The building has been closed since 2013 due to seismic and accessibility challenges.

Finally getting a chance to show their findings, Upton spearheaded the hour-long presentation that also included experts in topics such as campus construction and historic integrity.

If purchased and renovated, the auditorium would hold at least 80 days of Samohi sporting events. This includes events for volleyball, basketball and the wrestling team. Potential district uses outside of sporting events include convocation, college fairs, proms, graduation ceremonies and the Stairway of the Stars concert event.

Beyond SMMUSD events, the auditorium would be available for at least 165 days out of the year for other community uses, Upton noted. Community events such as concerts, banquets, theater shows and exhibitions were just a few of the items pointed to, something public commenter and community activist Jerry Rubin commended after attending “100s” of shows at the venue.

“We emphasize soccer and athletics, but the kids don’t really understand how important it is to have cultural, musical, artistic moments in their life,” Rubin said.

As far as finances, a purchase price from the City of Santa Monica is unknown at this time, and would further add to the costly project. Purchase and construction would require funding via a General Obligation Bond, with Upton stating that the bond for the auditorium project would not impact the district’s next planned bond for funding elementary and middle school projects.

In the next round of research and stakeholder discussion, Upton pointed to several key questions that remain, including the task of gaining a Coastal Development Permit from the California Coastal Commission, as well as an Environmental Impact Review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Another question, raised by several public commenters, was the matter of preserving the auditorium’s landmark status. Feelings on landmark status were particularly tense due to the Los Angeles Unified School District demolishing another historical site, the Ambassador Hotel, in 2005. Board members, however, were unwavering in their support for recognizing the historical significance of the site.

“I have absolutely no interest … in being a member of a board that would somehow contribute to the demolition of the Civic … I have no interest in that whatsoever,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

Out of the 19 speakers both in person and via the Zoom platform, several were for the project, but the overall majority was against moving forward for several reasons. Besides concern over historical preservation status, some pointed to the auditorium project as a waste of money and time, as well as a less than ideal option for intended usage like gymnasium space.

“You need to be honest, this doesn’t meet the needs of our sports,” said Nikki Kolhoff, who noted the lack of courts and locker room space for student athletes under the plan. “If you care about our kids, you are going to work on a legitimate, plain high school gym on our campus and leave this very special historic resource to the city and the residents of Santa Monica. It’s not yours.”

Dissent on the council side was based on skepticism in city officials’ willingness to cooperate in purchasing negotiations. The Santa Monica City Council recently voted to terminate negotiations on the auditorium property with the Community Corporation of Santa Monica, leaving the school district as the lone bidder under the current Surplus Land Act process.

Rouse said that city officials need to hear all the public feedback received by the board, and that the process may be “a little premature” with questions to be had on the city side of the deal.

“It seems like things have not gelled yet and there’s still a lot in question, and I think that’s where … some anxieties and concerns are coming up … the school district isn’t the driver of this, the city is,” Rouse said.

Board president Leon-Vazquez agreed that “it’s not us to decide,” and commented before her dissenting vote that she does not want to move forward “until we have those conversations” with city council.

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...