Turning a lingering and expensive civic embarrassment into a new asset for science education, a never-used, $21.8-million building paid for by the city to give the San Fernando Valley its first major museum finally will open Nov. 13 at Hansen Dam Recreation Center.
Dubbed the Discovery Cube Los Angeles, it will operate in tandem with the long-established but newly renamed Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana -- known as the Discovery Science Center since its 1998 opening.
Discovery announced the L.A. museum's opening, which will arrive seven years later and under different auspices than originally planned.
At 71,000 square feet, including an outdoor courtyard, Discovery Cube L.A. expects to draw 180,000 visitors in its first year, said Dan Nasitka, spokesman for its Santa Ana sister venue.
The "cube" designation comes from the organization's giant, 108-foot-high landmark cube in Santa Ana that looms above the 5 Freeway to beckon potential visitors. The L.A. museum will have its own marker cube, albeit a smaller version.
The Los Angeles City Council tapped the private, nonprofit Discovery Science Center to try to bring the desolate Hansen Dam building to life. L.A. leaders said they hoped that after establishing itself solidly in Santa Ana since 1998, Discovery could repeat its success 50 miles to the north.
City Hall had a similar public-private partnership in mind in 2007, but it fizzled. L.A. held up its end of the bargain by building the San Fernando Valley museum, but the Children's Museum of Los Angeles collapsed under the effort of trying to raise large sums to equip and operate a venue much bigger and more expensive than the small one it had run in downtown L.A.
That left the city on the hook to repay more than $16.2 million in public construction funds if a museum didn't open by March 2015. It first approached Discovery Science Center in 2010 about reviving the project by designing and installing exhibits, managing its operations and creating educational programs meant to reinforce the science taught in area schools.
Start-up costs for reviving the museum are $22.4 million for exhibits, building modifications and other capital costs, with $2 million provided by the Discovery Science Center and the rest cobbled together from various city accounts, including $3.6 million from sanitation funds and $3.9 million from the Department of Water and Power.
The municipal departments' contributions were earmarked for educational exhibits about resource recycling and water conservation meant to dovetail with their missions.
"It's been impressive to see [Discovery] officials move so quickly. It's really been a godsend," said Miguel Santana, the city of Los Angeles' chief administrative officer, who has joined Discovery Cube Los Angeles' newly constituted board. "They're committed to bringing in the quality program they're known for in Orange County, and the fundraising capacity to be sustainable."
"It's going to serve a community that hasn't had this kind of iconic, exciting facility," said former city controller and mayoral and congressional candidate Wendy Greuel, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and has joined the board of Discovery Cube Los Angeles. She also has done consulting work for the new museum. "The vision is for it to be self-sustaining" by covering operating expenses with a combination of fundraising and revenues from admissions, Greuel said.
State Sen. Alex Padilla is the third government figure on the 10-member board. Others include Metropolitan Theaters President Bruce Corwin, AEG Sports chief operating officer Kelly Cheeseman, Verizon executive Tim McCallion and Dr. Pedram Salimpour, president of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn.
Nasitka, the Discovery spokesman, said the first year's operating budget in L.A. will be $4.7 million, compared with about $13 million in Santa Ana. The new venue's executive director is expected to be announced in August; he or she will oversee a 94-member staff, 24 of them full-time employees. The Santa Ana museum has about 160 workers.
Admission fees haven't been set yet, Nasitka said, but will be "similar" to the Santa Ana scale of $16.95 for adults and $12.95 for seniors and children ages 3 to 14, with discounts for annual memberships. The Santa Ana science center reported attendance topping 500,000 in 2013, including school groups and people from Santa Ana taking advantage of the one day a month that's free to city residents.
More details about the exhibits will be announced in the coming two weeks, Nasitka said. Subjects will include astronomy, health and nutrition, natural resources and the environment. Some of the museum's exhibits will help drive home key concepts in the statewide K-12 science curriculum. Those programs will be geared to a different grade level each month, aiming to help visiting students better absorb the concepts they're tackling in their classrooms.
While the Los Angeles and Orange County Cubes each will have their own volunteer board tasked with fundraising and oversight, both will answer to a new nonprofit board called the Discovery Science Foundation that Nasitka said is still awaiting final approval of its tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. Joe Adams, Discovery Science Center's president since 2003, will be chief executive of the Discovery Science Foundation and also serve on the board of Discovery Cube L.A.
How the two boards and the oversight foundation will interact and what the lines of authority will be is not yet clear.
A transformation also is underway at the Discovery Cube in Santa Ana, where the steel skeleton of a 44,000-square-foot new wing has risen behind the existing building. Expected to open in 2015, it will increase the Santa Ana venue's overall space to 115,000 square feet, including its large outdoor exhibit of model dinosaurs.
The $22-million expansion in Santa Ana will include a 500-seat theater, Nasitka said, adding that about half the money is in hand, with a bank loan helping to finance construction while fundraising continues.
Replacing the longtime name "Discovery Science Center" with "Discovery Cube" was prompted by a desire to mark the start of a new era for the organization, Nasitka said, while better differentiating the two Discovery operations from the state-owned California Science Center in L.A.'s Exposition Park -- the first museum that likely comes to most Angelenos' minds when they hear the words "science center."