As the iconic concert venue goes dark on June 30, the Santa Monica community rallies to rescue this architectural giant from a permanent sleep
By Michael Aushenker
In 2002, on her first day working for the city of Santa Monica’s Landmarks Commission, a young Nina Fresco witnessed the cementing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as an iconic Westside destination.
“I came in, we went down to the site, and we landmarked,” Fresco recalled, noting how the venue – home to the Santa Monica Symphony and the host of historic concerts by such internationally renowned acts as The Doors, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Police, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pink Floyd and Prince – met the five-point criteria for landmark status with “flying colors.”
Today, Fresco leads the charge to save the 3,000-seat concert hall from extinction. The Civic’s lights will go dark on June 30.
So what led to the decision by the City Council to mothball the landmark venue on the night of Oct. 23, 2012?
“We lost the redevelopment money for renewal of the Civic,” Fresco said. “They were planning to shut it down for renovations on June 30 – to modernize the facility. But the redevelopment money did not come through, so they moved to shut it down for good.”
The landmarks commissioner, who doubles as the head of SaveOurCivicAuditorium.org, an online effort to rescue the facility from permanent closure, is working with a core volunteer group of 14 scrambling to find a solution curtailing the ominous fate awaiting this esteemed Welton Becket creation.
On the evening of June 4, about 100 area residents gathered at Virginia Avenue Park’s Thelma Terry Center to troubleshoot. Jessica Cusick, cultural affairs manager for the city of Santa Monica, delivered an overview of the situation before leading the discussion.
City staff, she explained, hired Urban Land Institute (ULI), an independent research firm, to assess the Civic’s viability. The ULI, Cusick continued, estimated it would take $52 million (“probably on the low side”) to redux the building’s main auditorium (currently not fit for public assembly) for seismic stability and “with a better sound system.”
“We need a clear vision, a clean plan for how to make this happen economically,” she added.
Given the Civic’s history and its potential, saving the auditorium appears to be in the economic and cultural interest of the city.
“Tonight is the beginning of a community conversation on how to renovate and reuse this cultural icon,” Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould told The Argonaut on June 4. “It was thrown for a loss when the state lost the redevelopment money. Now the community is getting together to generate ideas for capital funding to renovate the building and to provide the level of quality of culture and entertainment programming that Santa Monica and Westsiders expect and deserve.”
Alongside Gould at the town hall meeting, staunch supporters aiming to save the Civic from obsolescence included the Santa Monica Symphony’s conductor, Guido Lamell, and architect Bruce Becket, son of the Civic’s legendary designer.
“Because of the pride, history and symbolism, it’s important to save the SMCA,” Cusick said.
A subset of groups at the meeting brainstormed myriad suggestions regarding capital funding and operating revenue for the Civic: a city bond, philanthropic and corporate naming rights and dedicated use, fundraisers, leasing and parking opportunities, as well as digital billboards.
“Don’t release naming rights until developers have been selected,” cried one attendee.
Cultural and community benefits were discussed, as were aesthetic ideas on how best to turn the Civic and its plaza into a community hub: “Synergistic” marriages of commercial and office space; creating a “civic campus” with ground-floor retail opportunities, restaurants, and a movie theater for the American Film Market.
One person thought a “top-quality local symphony” might be a strong enough draw to sustain the Civic while another saw the creation of an “outdoor lawn” as ideal for multipurpose events. Yet another desired “something connecting the Civic to the ocean.”
Several attendees, including Save Our Civic’s Sepp Donahower, claimed the city is what ran the venerable auditorium into the ground with bad union contracts and other controversial decisions which, in the end, made the Civic too expensive to operate.
Fresco said, “One of the problems is that it was run by a city. They did their very best by it and had all good intentions, but the city can’t operate an entertainment venue and they don’t do it so well. We’d like to have the Civic set up in a way that will make it more self-sustaining with professional management and income streams to make it remain viable.”
“The place is a pot of gold covered in dust,” Donahower told The Argonaut.
Donahower knows a thing or two about the Civic Auditorium. Today, he may reside in San Pedro but his career has long included the Civic, where, in 1968, with Mark Chase (the promoter who hooked up such groups as The Doors to play there), he brought in Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream to play, leaving an imprint on its history with unforgettable shows by music legends.
Heading into the 1980s, Donahower continued to rely on the Civic when he headed Pacific Presentations, which he later sold (the concert company became Avalon, which begot Live Nation, whose current executive chairman is Irving Azoff, the former MCA and Warner Music Group exec who is also the CEO of Ticketmaster Entertainment and who sits on Clear Channel’s board.)
“Brian Murphy of AEG is interested in the Civic,” Donahower said, “and Irving Azoff would like to bring the Golden Globes there.”
At the gathering, Donahower, who has personally had a hand in seeing The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and David Bowie perform at the Civic, urged his fellow concerned citizens to form an advisory group to work with Cultural Affairs “representing the cream of the crop of Civic movers and shakers, people in the concert promotion biz, real estate, and the banks.”
Done smart, he added, a revamped Civic Center will “bolster all businesses on Main Street, which is suffering, and clean out that Pico corridor.”
On May 9, Donahower laid out his ideas for the committee with a nine-page paper titled “The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Site Ideas and a Discussion of Development Options.” He disagrees with critics of the Civic that it became unusable after its sound, and light equipment became outdated since promoters and artists have brought in outside technical people for their concerts since the venue opened in 1958.
“The reason the Civic Auditorium (fell into) decline (was because) the venue became too expensive to operate relative to the gross revenues,” Donahower wrote. “Promoters and producers were not allowed to contract for outside services such as stagehands and security. The Santa Monica Civic management kept control of all the staffing and outside services contracts and rates. The city let the stagehands determine how many were needed and what they got paid: same with security vendors. The costs skyrocketed to the point where showers were no longer profitable to the venue (as) talent costs were (rising).”
Donahower laid forth some financing possibilities – public bond financing; ground and building leases; and naming rights. Echoing the meeting’s ideas for commercial use of the plaza, Donahower suggested a boutique hotel along the east edge of Fourth Street.
“The existence of the Civic Auditorium is a clear community benefit,” said Fresco.
But even back in the day, the successful landmark designation met some resistance.
“Ironically, it was appealed by a city council member,” Fresco recalled, “but it was overturned. His concern was that designation would get in the way of upgrading.”
While some have expressed concern about the aging facility, “most people agree it will be a big community effort and a great thing to have it alive,” Fresco said.
Of course, there is the risk of development fatigue. With the construction of a pair of major parks downtown, an earthquake retrofit of the California Incline, the Expo Line light rail, and possibly some movement at Santa Monica Airport –all within the next couple of years – is there a risk that rescuing the Civic is one project too many for Santa Monica?
“The risk that we’re running,” Fresco said, “is that if people don’t follow (this issue) from the very beginning without understanding it, it will (appear) down the road as (ostensibly) a big redevelopment project.”
While the Civic sleeps following its June 30 shuttering, Fresco believes “one permanent staff person working full time” will take care of upkeep so it doesn’t fall into total disrepair. She observed that the auditorium’s east wing side room is newer and doesn’t have the issues of the more vulnerable main auditorium and can still be utilized. “Staff is proposing to lease out the main auditorium for private use with waivers so that the seismic issues aren’t a problem,” she added.
Fresco considers the Civic Auditorium the closest thing her city has to a signature building.
“We don’t have that many truly iconic pieces of architecture in Santa Monica,” she said, “and this is one of them. The history, combined with iconic architecture, it gives us our cultural identity.”
On June 11, the ULI gave a presentation to City Council, sharing with them recommendations combined with suggestions evoked at the June 4 meeting.
Having moved out to Santa Monica from her native New York for the Landmarks Commission job, Fresco said she personally has never caught one of those classic rock groups at the Civic. However, her son just participated in a district-wide school event there in which she experienced the joy of hearing “1,200 young musicians creating huge sounds.”
With more than 700 likes on Save’s Facebook page, Fresco said she can feel the awareness for the auditorium swelling as big as her pride of watching her child perform at “Stairway to the Stars” with the Santa Monica Symphony at the Civic. She wants that expert panel to happen soon.
“Their job is to figure it out on behalf of the city and make the Civic site a system that enhances the experience and they know the community,” she said. “Priority is less likely to have mission drift, which the community is concerned about.”
At the council meeting June 11, Save Our Civic stood patiently at the council chambers.
“Our group had a particular comment being vociferous about – to get this Civic advisory panel of experts, as opposed to consults,” Fresco said. “Staff said we would like to add a recommendation that you consider this advisory panel. We were really thrilled.”
Fresco noted “time is of the essence,” but she believes the council’s support for the panel “went exactly the way we would have hoped.”
“We feel there’s been a lot of visioning already in the last decade,” she said.
“I feel like we know what we need to know. What we need to do now is appoint an advisory group of experts. Bring on the experts.”