A Civic Rebirth

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium

On the morning of January 31st and February 1st, Santa Monica citizens will converge on the East Wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the second of three planned public workshops, to help determine the future of this iconic auditorium and the surrounding site. The members of the Civic Working Group, city staff, consultants and residents will use customized computer technology to dive into what it would take, in dollars and cents, to turn the four-acre “Civic” and the 4.5 acres of available land that surround it, into a reality of rebirth and expansion.

The Civic was unveiled in the summer of 1958 to great fanfare – a dazzling concrete, glass and steel emblem of Mid-century Modern International style then popular throughout the world. The structure came in at less than three million dollars, and was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “the last word in modern convention hall construction” incorporating the finest elements of a theater, concert hall, and trade show/convention auditorium.

It was designed by Welton Becket, an icon of LA architecture. Much of what Los Angeles looks like, many of its iconic structures – were Becket’s design. The Pan Pacific, Beverly Hilton, Cinerama Dome, Sports Arena and the Music Center are among examples of his work. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was considered by most architects and critics of the time to be one of Becket’s best.

The city-owned Civic quickly became one of the hottest event venues in the nation. Rock, jazz, country and classical concerts, award shows, sporting events, film festivals, small conventions, fundraising galas, and surf and ski films all drew eager audiences to Santa Monica’s Civic. The Academy Awards, SAG Awards, The Doors, James Brown, David Bowie, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Clash, Bob Marley, The Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin, U2, Dave Brubeck, Prince, Ella Fitzgerald and Bob Dylan and many more legends graced the Civic stage. The Civic served our local community as the platform for Santa Monica Schools’ Annual Stairway to the Stars, and our local symphony orchestras.

For the last two decades the Civic has languished, as bigger, better venues were built. The disadvantages of the now-dated facility became apparent. The city-run management team was unable to find financial success in a more competitive market. Years of deferred investment in its maintenance, sound, lighting and seating led to a decline in the premiere bookings that had made our Civic an icon. With new seismic standards requiring an extensive retrofit, complete code and accessibility updates needed for compliance, and an aging infrastructure that needed a complete overhaul of all mechanical systems, the decision was made to close the facility.

In 2001 the Civic was declared a local landmark. In 2005 the Civic Center Master Plan was updated. In 2008 a possible shared use between Samohi and the Civic was explored. Several potential private operators and publicly funded renovation plans were floated over the past few years. There has been some interest by private entities in operating the Civic if the city renovated the facility. Several productions, Shen Yun being one, have expressed interest in making the Civic their American home.

A City Of Santa Monica Opportunities and Challenges Report in 2005 declared, “The most critical issue facing the arts community in Santa Monica is retaining and fostering arts and culture. The need for performing venues is critical to the survival of the arts in the city.” The Urban Land Institute, Los Angeles branch stated, “The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium IS the cultural heart of the city.” The ULI Study in July 2013 said, “the City Of Santa Monica must renovate the Civic as a cultural icon for posterity”. The Study goes on to mention that 43% of our residents make their living in arts-related fields.

So we ask the question: Is the Civic integral to our city psyche and, if so, what is the form, function and shape that a modernized Civic Cultural Center should take? And, what is each of us willing to pay in order to have a “special place” on the Westside to demonstrate our 21st century vision of Santa Monica’s cultural leadership? Make no mistake: the renovation and right-size adaptive use and development of the contiguous parcels will require tremendous investment by our city and possibly our school district.

Attendees at the opening public workshop in September strongly voiced a preference for the continued use of the Civic as a performing arts and cultural center. Conference space and gala banquet facilities won approval. High-rise hotels and creative office space were given a solid thumbs down. People expressed a desire for park space, a museum and a connection to both Barnum Hall and the Greek Theatre at Samohi.

A renovated Civic Auditorium would have to be a state of the art facility to compete for the top of the line events. It would need to have a versatile stage, sound and lighting experience for producers, as does a venue such as the Beverly Hilton’s Starlight Ballroom.

Should we spend the money to do the required seismic upgrades on the existing building? OR – do we preserve the iconic front entrance façade and foyer and let them segue into a brand new housing of the auditorium? An example of a potentially creative and stunning solution is the Benedict Tent in Aspen, Colorado. This Teflon-coated fiberglass structure created by renowned architect Harry Teague presents an example of a less expensive and more innovative solution for the Civic. The Tent has proven to be a successful draw for the world class Aspen Music Festival. It is a waterproof, tensile structure, which would be ideal in an intense seismic zone such as Santa Monica. The same type of tent-like structure tops the Denver International Airport.

Neighboring venues must be integrated into the Civic Cultural Arts Complex to truly create a true arts campus that is a citywide and regional draw. Samohi’s superb auditorium, Barnum Hall, is an architectural gem built as a WPA project in 1937 as Santa Monica’s original Civic Auditorium. The theatre seats over 1200 and harbors great acoustics. It is the perfect home for classical music and musical theatre performances in our city. Samohi’s outdoor Greek Theatre seats almost 3500 and could become our city’s summer outdoor concert arena. The Greek would require significant lighting, sound and seating upgrades. Barnum and the Greek would need a grand entryway that would flow into the Civic Auditorium grounds. Significant green space within the Civic boundaries, underground parking, a museum of beach culture, a new 25,000 square-foot conference center and rehearsal facility, restaurants, a catering facility, art galleries and an activation of Pico Blvd from Main Street to 4th Street are needed to fully integrate this new Civic Cultural Facility into our city. Fully utilizing our existing venues while creating new “user friendly” facilities is essential to our civic well being.

We can look to Pasadena for a case study on how to run a financially viable Civic Auditorium and related facilities. A new, independent, non-profit authority should be created. General obligation bond issuance, utilization of the Transit Occupancy Tax, an enhanced infrastructure-financing district, naming rights, philanthropy, minor development in scale and proper fiscal prudence can all be part of the creation of this much-needed Community Cultural Creative District.

Santa Monica residents have a passion for the arts and a strong community spirit. This is our Civic Center. Whatever approach you may favor, we strongly recommend your attendance on Saturday, January 31st AND Sunday, February 1st in the east wing of the Civic Auditorium. The workshop will begin at 9:30AM both days.

Phil Brock, Parks Commissioner, for SMa.r.t.

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