The Santa Monica Civic: the beat goes on, and on

At its meeting tomorrow evening the Santa Monica City Council will once again consider how to save the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Specifically, it will consider recommendations from the “Civic Working Group” (CWG), a nine-member task force the council convened in 2014 to analyze future possibilities for the Civic and its site. I was a member of the CWG. During the time I was a member I avoided opining publicly about the Civic outside of the CWG meetings. Now that the CWG has been disbanded after completing its work, I feel free to write again about the Civic.

Agonizing over the future of the Civic has been going on for decades. As the council and the community again debate the future of the auditorium (and its site), it’s worth considering the impact of the historical context. Our collective inability to do anything about the Civic is the consequence of how the Civic came to be. In the 1950s the City used eminent domain, under the then optimistic rhetoric of urban renewal, to clear out a neighborhood of largely African-American residences and small businesses. Following the mid-century fashion, the City used the land to create a superblock for an edifice that turned its back on Pico Boulevard. The four blocks of Pico stretching from the beach to Fourth Street should be four of the most delightful blocks in Santa Monica, and they still have the potential to be so if the Civic can be reworked.

As UCLA professor and Ocean Park resident, Dana Cuff, wrote in her book The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism, “convulsive urbanism” of the sort that allowed the Civic to be built is inherently disruptive and inevitably leads to contention. While ideally cities evolve organically, based on cumulative decision making over time, it’s difficult to make big decisions about what to do with large hunks of publicly owned land when it comes time for future urban evolution. (To give another example, consider the controversy over the site the City assembled at Fourth and Arizona.)

The Civic had its glorious moments, but within a decade of its construction the Civic was being called a white elephant. It ultimately became a drag on the City’s budget, and for decades the City has been trying to figure out what to do with it.

When Gov. Jerry Brown terminated redevelopment in California a few years ago, one local impact was to save the City of Santa Monica from spending about $50 million of redevelopment money (not “our money,” by the way, but money taken from social service and school budgets), in a desperate effort to save the Civic. The plan was to use the “free” redevelopment money to rehab the Civic and turn it over to a private operator, the Nederlander Organization. Unfortunately, the contract with the Nederlanders did not require them to invest in the facility or, in fact, to continue to operate it into the future, and the City still expected the Civic to run deficits. As I said, it was a desperate plan.

With no redevelopment money, City Council voted to close the Civic. This tough vote had the unfortunate consequence that auditorium employees lost their jobs, but it did improve the possibilities of saving the Civic as a going concern because any new operator would come in with a clean slate. In the aftermath, the council convened the CWG to develop strategies to save the Civic as the anchor of a “mixed-use cultural district.”

“Mixed-use cultural district.” It’s important to keep that phrase in mind. A cultural district using the whole site, possibly with income-generating properties to subsidize the Civic, was the CWG’s mandate.

One problem arose, however, because the council had not said anything explicit about how the cultural district vision related to a decision the council had made in 2005 to convert most of the Civic parking lot into a full-sized athletic field. As the CWG did its work, it became clear that it would be unlikely that a full-sized field could be consistent with a cultural district. That’s because such a field, particularly if it would be used by Santa Monica High School, would need to be fenced in (and with high fences to prevent balls from sailing onto Fourth Street). For that and other reasons it’s difficult to visualize how a full-sized field could double as publicly usable open space.

While it is possible that a “village green” on, say, two acres, could work as part of a cultural district and be suitable for soccer for young children, the CWG didn’t want to dodge the issue about the full-sized field because it was so important to the sports community. In the CWG’s report, the position we took was that the site had to include open space that included athletic uses consistent with a cultural campus, and that in that connection the possibility of a full-sized playing field had to be investigated. Anticipating, however, that a full-sized field would not be consistent with a cultural campus, we advised the council that in that case the council should not proceed with plans at the Civic Center without making sure that fields were built elsewhere.

This, as everyone knows, did not satisfy the sport field people, who want the council to make an absolute commitment a full-sized field regardless of the consequences for the site as a whole. Tomorrow night the playing field issue will dominate the politics. But beyond that issue, the most important recommendation the CWG developed was to advise the council to look outside for partners to take over (to what extent we don’t know) operation of the Civic. There is no reason for the City to be in the events management business, and the Civic is a valuable property. While there have been financial analyses made of what the economics would be for rehabbing and operating the Civic, we won’t truly know what the property is worth as a revitalized venue until we open it up for bids from businesses in the entertainment field as well as non-profit arts and cultural organizations.

Taking all this into account, staff’s recommendations to council make sense. Staff is suggesting that the City issue a “request for qualifications” to identify entities that might make proposals to renovate and operate the Civic, but only for the auditorium and not the parking lot. Staff recommends holding off on planning the parking lot until other planning processes have been completed, most notably the School District’s planning for improvements at Samohi. Back in 2009 the District developed plans that would have added a new field on the campus, and sought City redevelopment money to help pay for it. Now the District has its own bond money and is determining how to use it. The District and the City should work together to make a new field on the school campus happen.

Thanks for reading.

7 thoughts on “The Santa Monica Civic: the beat goes on, and on

  1. I find it particularly interesting that in both this piece by Frank, and in Michael Feinstein’s column today, neither mention the ECEC. Almost two acres carved out of the site to serve Rand, SMC, and City employees, with only a hard fought for 30 resident children ‘promised’ a spot. There is also no mention of the current talks for a new reservoir to be built under the Civic Center site, and how that affects any structural work going forward at all, leaving the only reasonable option of a surface playing field for the next several years at a minimum.

    So, why so silent on the ECEC in both of these articles? Rand puts $500,000 in escrow to be used toward building the ECEC and has it codified in their DA that a guaranteed 25% of the slots go to their employees. The SMC staff gets more of the slots, and City employees get even more, while the Council is forced to toss a bone to the residents of 30% (qualified as maybe). Then, the City tosses in another 5.7million of taxpayer dollars, and the remainder ostensibly coming from the $300million bond the residents passed for SMC… All to build a daycare center, on our civic center land and to be operated by a private company, not even SMC, all for the princely land rental sum of $1/year for the next 55 years. And neither of your articles touch on this. Why is that?

    • I can’t speak for Mike, Bob, but my article is about what the CWG had on its plate and what it did. The childcare center has been a part of the plan since the original 1993 plan that the voters approved, and since plans were in place to build it, it wasn’t part of our purview. I never heard of putting a reservoir under the parking lot — when did that come up?

      • Ted mentioned it the other day. I think it is a $57million grant application. Think that might have a little impact on the site? But I still find your response somewhat disingenuous because the ULI directions came from HR&A and led the entire way with only hotels and commercial office development in mind for the site. That the ecec was on the ’93 plan is no more relevant than the fact that the playing field was on the 2005 plan, or that there have been two subsequent increases in the size of the ECEC approved by the council without even a signed lease agreement. And the audacity of claiming no way to fund the project while giving the land to SMC for $1/yr for 55 years, and throwing in another 5.7 mil to boot. It’s b.s. There is no way that SMC belongs on the civic center.

  2. “While ideally cities evolve organically, based on cumulative decision making over time, it’s difficult to make big decisions about what to do with large hunks of publicly owned land when it comes time for future urban evolution.(To give another example, consider the controversy over the site the City assembled at Fourth and Arizona.)”

    That is certainly the case when there is no plan (such as, for example, a Downtown Specific Plan) in place. In such cases, every exception to the zoning rules raises suspicion of special interests benefitting from the exceptions.

    • Yes, but I’d say your distinction is one without a difference. When government is the developer, there is never a plan in effect. The real question is, why should government be assembling land for private purposes in the first place? That should have been a lesson learned 50 years ago.

  3. Pingback: The Santa Monica Civic: The Beat Goes On, And On | Santa Monica Next

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