One of the many big projects going on in Santa Monica today is the effort to save and make functional again the Civic Auditorium. The City had a plan a few years ago that would have used about $50 million in redevelopment money to rehab and make necessary upgrades to the facility, but that went south when Gov. Brown terminated redevelopment in California. In response, the City Council formed a new, nine-person task force, called the Civic Working Group (CWG), to seek solutions, and I am honored to be a member of it.
This weekend, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the CWG is hosting a two-day workshop where participants will work with innovative technology to evaluate possible scenarios for saving the Civic. Participants will use software on iPads to make “tradeoffs” among wants, costs, and physical constraints. It’s going to be demanding but exciting, and I hope we get a great turnout. (For details of the workshop, click here.)
I was not a fan of the City’s plan to use redevelopment money to save the Civic. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the architectural or programming proposals, but I didn’t believe that the deal the City made with the Nederlander Organization to run the facility made sense. In my opinion, the deal didn’t provide a realistic long-term solution, because the City would likely continue to lose significant money on operations without any guarantee that the Nederlanders would continue to operate the facility. It was a deal the City made in the aftermath of the Great Recession—if we had redevelopment money today I suspect the deal would be better.
As it happened, the loss of the redevelopment money had a side effect that could be the key to saving the Civic. When the redevelopment money evaporated, City Manager Rod Gould advised the City Council, and the council agreed, that the Civic could not be opened to the public in its present condition. That led to the council taking the drastic step of terminating the employment of the Civic’s staff.
It is gut wrenching when good people, in this case city workers who had lovingly taken care of the Civic, lose their jobs. The City was able to find new work for most of the workers (and some took retirement), but the hard fact was that the City’s overhead at the Civic made it difficult to make operations there financially viable. Now with a “clean slate” it may be possible to devise a plan that works.
Participants at the workshop this weekend will explore and choose among possibilities for future use of the Civic. Using the new software they will continually evaluate their choices against costs (both capital and operating) and other constraints (such as acreage and parking capacity). The program, called “MetroQuest,” is interactive and dynamic, and participants will be able to revise their models as they gather more information.
Since CWG members will serve as facilitators, we had training on MetroQuest this week. I have to say that I’m excited. MetroQuest will allow participants (using iPads that will be provided) to make choices for what they would like to see in and around the reborn Civic and then juggle the financial and other implications of those choices to see how they can make their plans work. (After the workshop, the software will be on the Web for two weeks for anyone to use, but come to the workshop, learn the software, and have fun.)
Over the decades that the City has been trying to figure out what to do with the Civic Auditorium one problem has been that the various public processes have ended up emphasizing what people want at the Civic, and not how to pay for it. As often is the case with a public process, the tendency has been to try to please everyone. MetroQuest forces participants to focus their desires by requiring them to make tradeoffs to get to plans that can work. The workshop should bring the public closer to the actual process that decision makers will ultimately have to go through.
The workshop will not be exhaustive. Not all future possibilities for the Civic and the surrounding area could be included in MetroQuest, because alternatives need to have backup research into costs and benefits. The program will, however, incorporate the most popular ideas that came out of a previous public workshop in September, and various alternatives to pay for those public uses that would need subsidy. Hopefully the exercise will lead to even more creative thinking—the ultimate solution for saving the Civic might not resemble anyone’s final model on Sunday, but I’m sure a solution will depend on what happens this weekend.
I hope to see you Saturday.
Thanks for reading.