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.

How to help save the Civic Auditorium and have fun doing so

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.