‘Anything an Option’ for Santa Monica Civic

Times Staff Writer

The fate of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium will be determined next year when the city decides what to do with 11 acres of civic center land that includes the county courthouse.

On Tuesday, the City Council approved a work program to develop options for the land, which may include expanding and upgrading the auditorium or demolishing it and building anything from a cultural center to a hotel. The city hopes to develop a final proposal within nine months.

“Anything is an option at this point,” said Gary Ferguson, who has been the auditorium’s director for 22 years. “It is just too early to even know. . . . I think an entertainment facility is vital to the city and should be a strong consideration.”

When it opened in 1958, the civic was the second largest auditorium in the Los Angeles area, second only to the Shrine. At one time, the Academy Awards and performances of the Los Angeles Philharmonic were held there. During the 1970s the auditorium hosted major rock concerts.


But in recent years it has faced increasingly stiff competition for rock concerts from other, much larger arenas. Recently, the auditorium’s bread and butter has been consumer trade shows.

Breaking Even

City Manager John Jalili said that the auditorium is breaking even, largely because of parking revenues, but in the past has lost between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.

City officials said the auditorium is not a good concert or convention hall. “The civic auditorium is trying to do too many things,” Planning Director Paul Silvern said. “It doesn’t do any of these things successfully. It was designed to be a multipurpose facility.”


The other structure on the 11-acre site is the county administration building, which the county is considering expanding.

The civic center is surrounded by other large parcels that may be redeveloped in the near future. The Rand Corp., located west of Main Street, has been considering redeveloping 17 acres of land for a hotel, theaters or retail stores.

And a developer has signed an agreement with the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District and has proposed building a 255-room hotel on the old administration building site east of 4th Street as a way to raise funds for the school district.

Some council members and business leaders have suggested that the entire area be turned into a convention and visitors center with the Civic Auditorium used for moderate-sized conventions. Others have suggested that the land be used for a hotel, offices, theaters, a museum or a park.


Councilman William H. Jennings said that the civic center should give Santa Monicans a focus. “This is a great opportunity for us to capture our own citizens,” he said.

Opportunity to ‘Dream’

Councilman Dennis Zane called it an opportunity to “dream” and said that the site is suited for cultural uses.

Mayor Christine E. Reed said she hopes to see cultural activities continue in the auditorium. “I haven’t seen any reason to give up the auditorium-type use,” Reed said. “I do think it’s important that we have a facility which can be used both for cultural purposes and meeting exhibit purposes.”


Councilman David G. Epstein said the center’s location near the freeway, the beach and a number of hotels enables Santa Monica to compete with Los Angeles for conventions.

City officials said that the civic center is the focal point of potential development in the area.

“This is the kind of parcel that’s so unique in the city,” said Peggy Curran, acting director of the Community and Economic Development Department. “It’s right in the heart of the downtown civic center. . . . It warrants a very careful planning process that could take several years.”

Planning for the Rand property is also under way. Rand’s buildings, constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, need renovation, said Rae Archibald, vice president of finance and administration for Rand, in an interview last year.


But increases in the property values have made it more attractive for the nonprofit corporation to use the land to increase revenue for the corporation’s endowment, Archibald said.

Several Ideas

One idea, according to Archibald, is for Rand to find office space somewhere else in the city and find a partner to redevelop its property. Another idea is for Rand to build a new new offices on the site.

“Some kind of activity which would bring in visitors clearly fits well with the Civic Auditorium and e civic center,” Archibald said.


The Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District hopes to raise an average of $500,000 a year through the redevelopment of three parcels of surplus school property, including the old administration building, according to school board President Connie Jenkins.

The agreement with the developer, who has proposed the hotel on 4th Street, also calls for the construction of a new administration building on 16th Street and Olympic Boulevard.

Jenkins said the school district, in desperate financial straits, wants to proceed as soon as possible.

“They asked us to wait until they decide what to do,” Jenkins said. " . . . That was three years ago and they still don’t have a plan. . . . We’re three years into this (the school district) plan already. We really can’t afford to wait any additional time.”