Plans for the venue range from a new arts and culture district to redeveloping the complex into retail and office space

By Rebecca Kuzins

The dormant Santa Monica Civic Auditorium can be reborn as a performing arts venue that would anchor a new downtown arts and culture district — that is, if the city can find $50 million to bring it back to life.

A full restoration of the 1958 landmark was the “dream scenario” supported by about 150 Santa Monica residents who attended a Sept. 27 workshop at the Civic’s east annex, the first of a series of meetings to determine the venue’s future. Designed by Welton Beckett and Associates, the Civic hosted the annual Academy Awards presentations from 1961 to 1967 and concerts by Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Doors, The Eagles, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald in its heyday.

Santa Monica closed the auditorium in June 2013 after the city was unable to obtain state funding to keep it operating. Last October, City Council members appointed a nine-member Civic Working Group to study possible uses for the auditorium and its 10.3-acre campus, which extends along Pico Boulevard from Main Street to 4th Street.

Paul Silvern of HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm hired to assist the Civic Working Group, said its members envision the auditorium becoming “the anchor use” for “a mixed-use arts and cultural district” that would connect up with Santa Monica High School and other existing locations.

City officials have already authorized Santa Monica College to develop an Early Childhood Education Center on between 1.5 and 1.8 acres of the site. The center will provide full-time care for infants and pre-school children and professional development for child care providers.

Workshop participants were taken on a tour of the auditorium site that stopped at four points that were a two- to 10-minute walk from Santa Monica City Hall, Santa Monica High School, Tongva Park, the Expo Station to be built at Colorado and 4th Street, the 3rd Street Promenade and Santa Monica Place shopping malls, the Ocean Park neighborhood, and the Main Street commercial district. At each of the stops, participants were asked how “existing education, arts and cultural facilities could be integrated into the Civic Auditorium experience and the adjacent site.”

Following the tour, Silvern presented four possible uses that his firm has proposed for the auditorium, with examples of similar uses in other cities.

The first proposal is to restore the Civic Auditorium as a performing arts center. The Urban Land Institute, an independent research firm, has estimated that it would cost at least $52 million to rehabilitate the 3,000-seat Civic by, among other things, installing a better sound system and making the building more earthquake-resistant.

The second proposal suggests the building and surrounding site become an arts and cultural center, but would not include a performing arts center. Instead, there would be space for digital media and studios for painters, dancers, and other artists, as well as artists’ housing.

The third proposal would turn the auditorium into a meeting and conference center. One of the examples of this use was the Pasadena Convention Center in that city’s downtown area, which features 29 meeting rooms, an exhibit hall, and a ballroom.

The final proposal is an adaptive re-use of the building for commercial and office space.

Silvern compared that concept to the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, which opened earlier this year on the site of a repurposed office building after developers retrofitted the adjacent 1,600-seat United Artists movie theater as a concert and event venue. Another example was the San Francisco Chronicle building, which has been redeveloped to include office space for artists and tech companies and will become the hub of a mixed-use district that combines housing and office space with retail, arts and public event uses.

Because the Civic is a designated city landmark, developers of any proposal would have to obtain permissions from the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission if they sought to modify its historic features. Developers would also be required to retain the auditorium-adjacent parking lot, with space for 992 vehicles, due to parking agreements with the Santa Monica Courthouse and local businesses that use the lot.

Keeping these proposals in mind, participants, who were seated at 12 tables, discussed their suggestions for the auditorium, and a spokesperson from each table later presented their ideas to the entire group.

Nina Fresco, chair of the Civic Working Group, encouraged participants to present their “dream scenarios” without worrying about how to finance their proposals.

While there were many suggestions, the majority of people were in favor of using the auditorium as a performing arts center. There was also a general consensus that the site should be low-density, with green and open space, and possibly include uses for Santa Monica High School students.

Participants also wanted the site to be connected by a bridge or pathway to the high school’s Greek Theater and Barnum Hall auditorium.

Many at the workshop also emphasized the importance of designing the site for local residents — not for tourists or people outside of Santa Monica, with several people adamantly opposed to building a hotel.

The economic feasibility of each proposal is the focus of a two-day public workshop set for Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.

A third workshop on March 21 will “tie together all the material,” said Fresco, and help the Civic Working Group prepare its ultimate recommendations for the site. Those recommendations will go before the City Council — the final arbiter of the Civic’s fate — in May.

PHOTO: A 1958 postcard image of what was then the newly completed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Image courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum.