Residents have made their desires for the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium clear, but its fate ultimately hangs on the City Council’s shoulders?

By Michael Aushenker

Now a historic landmark with an uncertain future, the 1958 Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was a striking cultural venue in its heyday. Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum

Now a historic landmark with an uncertain future, the 1958 Santa Monica Civic Auditorium was a striking cultural venue in its heyday.
Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum

On Saturday morning, the Civic Working Group (CWG) — a group of city appointed resident experts tasked with analyzing potential uses for the mothballed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium — will hold its third and final community workshop about the future of the venue.

But only after the Santa Monica City Council decides later this year whether to reactivate the Civic as a performance venue or repurpose its 10.3-acre campus will taxpayers have an answer to the question left hanging after the second workshop more than four months ago: Did their input really matter, or is the Civic’s fate a fait accompli?

At the Civic’s east annex on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, CWG Chair Nina Fresco and Vice Chair Iao Katagiri presided over a public gathering along with a team led by John Alschuler, head of HR&A Advisors — a locally based real estate, economic development and energy efficiency consulting firm that is assisting the CWG in the analysis of the Civic’s potential.

Only two things seem definite regarding the Civic. No. 1: City officials have authorized Santa Monica College to develop an Early Childhood Education Center on 1.5 to 1.8 acres of the site. No. 2: For the remaining eight acres, “there’s a consensus where people would like to see this as an arts and culture complex. I think it’s a given,” the CWG’s Frank Gruber said.

CWG reached this consensus partly through its workshops, the first of which occurred Sept. 27.

Unique to January’s second workshop was HR&A’s employment of its MetroQuest software, giving Santa Monicans the chance to plan the Civic’s usage using iPads on site or from home via at the city’s website.

Roughly 120 attendees and 1,000 Internet users participated in the “simplified, broad and safe” trade-off game, parameters of which “based on conservative projections gleaned from comparable projects” gave the CWG “a true sense” of what people will or will not compromise on, Fresco said.

“We are pleased that many people found the online trade-off tool we designed with MetroQuest and our team of sub-consultants to be fun and engaging, but it also has a very specific purpose in our process,” HR&A Vice President Paul Silvern said. “The trade-off tool was specifically designed to acquaint members of the public with exactly the same kinds of decision-making complexity that the CWG, and ultimately the City Council, will face, and to work through the trade-offs that must be addressed in a creative and realistic re-imagining of the Civic and its surrounding area.”

“What’s great about HR&A, if you ask them a question and it’s a good question, they can get you that data,” Gruber said, noting that the Metroquest software is “in its first iteration.”

Since the 1990s, HR&A’s work for the City has focused on economic analysis of planning (2010 Land Use & Circulation Elements updates), housing (re-tooling of the City’s Affordable Housing Production Program) and other policy initiatives, or analysis of individual proposed development projects (Hines Bergamot Transit Village), many involving the deliverance of analysis results to city commissions and the City Council.

Silvern said the Metroquest approach makes this assignment unique: Beyond his staff’s expertise and his firm’s 30 years-plus experience, their work has benefitted from “the experience and perspective of the CWG members and the public [attending the workshops].”

Late January also saw City Manager Rod Gould stepping down. During his final service days, Gould, in office during the Civic’s June 2013 shuttering, shared with The Argonaut his “bullish” outlook on Santa Monica’s future, including the Civic:

“The Council and community are quite right to wish to see the [Civic] Auditorium renovated and put back into use as a cultural and entertainment center. People need to accept and work through the $55- to $70-million one-time capital cost and ongoing need for $1 to $2 million in operating subsidy needed to accomplish this,” he said.

For Fresco, working with HR&A and their software helps streamline their process, transcending the norm to “get information from people on complex financial issues.”

While everyone agrees the tool has been useful, Gruber — an attorney and writer who has written extensively about Santa Monica — questioned whether it presented the entire picture.

“What I felt was missing in the tools we had was, OK, if we bring in AEG or Nederlander, are we going to hand them a built theater? What do they pay?” Gruber asked, rhetorically. “What I think has not been explored in that is how much such a private entity would spend on the capital renovation on the theater and what they would want for doing that.”

Unsatisfied with a ticket tax, Gruber wants to know what an operator would pay in rent to take part in a capitalized financing program.

“We have to be creative about this kind of stuff. We have to encourage partners to go in,” Gruber said.

Gruber’s example: Loew’s Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York — a $93-million renovation of a dormant landmark into a state-of-the-art movie theater, in which roughly half the financing came from public sources while the rest came from a private entity in return for rights to run the facility for 55 years.

“My fantasy is the L.A. Phil. Let’s have a Westside venue,” Gruber said.

Gruber, of course, clarifies that his opinions are personal: his group has not settled on any single recommendation. However, such angles should be explored: “We have a big funding gap. It’s clear it’s very hard to fill this gap without either a large bond issue or someone coming in with capital. It’s a big problem we have to solve,” he said.

“I am doubtful that a tax measure to fund a bond issue will succeed,” Gould agreed, “but the ULI report indicates that the right mix of development on the parking lot site could generate enough revenue streams to swing it. It might involve the commercial parcels to the south if the owner will participate.”

The CWG has been sorting through the MetroQuest data prior to Saturday’s final community workshop, which intends to “tie together all the material,” as Fresco put it.

“[The results] will be used to frame a set of alternative site development scenarios for further public discussion at Workshop No. 3,” Silvern said.

The CWG then finalizes its recommendations, which are expected to go before the Santa Monica City Council mid-year.

Gruber does not pussyfoot around when asked whether the Metroquest results will impact his committee’s recommendations.

“We’re looking for good ideas. We’re not looking for a vote,” Gruber said. “This is a very big problem the city. It has lost the city millions of dollars for many years and was not considered benefitting the city’s residents. It’s hard.”

After five years in city office, Gould may have been bullish about the Civic’s prospects, but he was also realistic.

“The public must accept some trade-offs if the Civic is to be brought back to life,” Gould said. “Some combination of hotel, creative office, retail and/or meeting space with a private operator as partner may be feasible.

“However, sports fields and additional park space on the site just postpone the revitalization deeper into the future. The community doesn’t generally accept trade-offs willingly, so the Civic may sit empty for a number of years until and acceptable and financeable plan is produced and agreed upon.”

Community Workshop #3 begins 9:30 a.m. on Saturday at Civic Auditorium East Wing, 1855 Main St., Santa Monica. Information: