Council seeks proposals to resuscitate the venue; locals hope for an adjacent youth sports field, too

By Gary Walker

The Santa Monica Civic hosted the 1966 Academy Awards Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum

The Santa Monica Civic hosted the 1966 Academy Awards
Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica History Museum

While putting out a call for private event operators to submit plans for reopening the mothballed Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, city leaders also agreed to consider allocating some of the land around the auditorium for youth sports fields.

The celebrated 1958 venue closed in 2013, and city officials have been grappling with how to put the 11,775-square-foot space back in use for arts and entertainment programming without local subsidies or the help of now-defunct state redevelopment funding.

On Feb. 9, the Santa Monica City Council voted 6-0 (with Councilwoman Pam O’Connor absent) to follow the recommendation of the city’s Civic Working Group and put out an official call for private-sector proposals that would revive operations at the Civic.

The Civic Working Group’s final report offered a number of possibilities for the Civic, but the preferred option is to revive it as a 2,600-seat entertainment venue.

Less anticipated was the arrival of dozens of student athletes, many of them wearing team jerseys, who called on council members to build a new sports field on the Civic’s parking lot at Fourth Street and Pico Boulevard — reviving a longstanding grievance about the city’s shortage of space for team sports.

“In plain words, we need this field. And we need it to be made a priority. Any proposal that you accept, make sure that there’s a field blocked out on it,” said Lori Whitsell, whose two sons play football for Santa Monica High School.

She was one of about 100 speakers who addressed the council during what became a four- hour hearing to seek requests for proposals to operate the Civic.

The council’s decision included language to consider the possibility of creating a temporary field at the Civic site and for the city staff to consider that a priority.

Council members Gleam Davis and Sue Himmelrich encouraged those who make proposals to operate the Civic to show some creativity in their plans.

“There are a lot of things that we can put there, and the idea is not to put restraints on it so whoever responds to the [request for proposals] can use their imagination and think out of the box as much as possible,” Davis said.

Davis, who acknowledged that it could take years to put the Civic back into use, noted that the working group neither recommended nor opposed having a sports field at the Civic site, but left open the possibility of doing something creative there to the council.

Councilman Kevin McKeown recalled being part of a 2005 vote supporting a Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Specific Plan that included a sports field, but said even that probably wouldn’t be enough to serve all the various teams that lobbied the council.

“It’s pretty clear that no matter what we do with that one field, it’s not going to accommodate even the students from Samohi that we heard from,” McKeown said.

City Manager Rick Cole warned that there are a number of labor-intensive and in some cases more immediate projects on the horizon — mobility plans regarding the soon to arrive Expo Light Rail Line, affordable housing plans, the ongoing battle over control of Santa Monica Airport — that could be delayed if the city staff is required to take on another project on an accelerated scheduled.

“Let’s be realistic — a major commitment on this is going to have an impact on our workload. We don’t have a bunch of people waiting for projects to keep them occupied,” Cole told the council.

McKeown said the speakers offered the council an opportunity to reflect on something that officeholders at times engage in at their own peril.

“One thing that I learned tonight — and I hope we all did— was how dangerous it can be to create expectations that we can’t fulfill. If we cavalierly say, ‘Yes, we’re committed to a temporary field,’ without knowing what that takes, we may be promising something that we really cannot do,” he said. “Things like this need to be planned.”