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Torrance Center Is ‘A Dream Realized’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 25 years of false starts, the Torrance Cultural Arts Center last week made it all the way to an official groundbreaking ceremony.

Beaming City Council members, shivering as a frigid wind whipped across the two-acre construction site, gave speeches of gratitude to more than 200 community leaders who had gathered Thursday to watch the ceremonial tossing of earth from gold-painted shovels.

“I really never thought that this day would come,” Mayor Katy Geissert said as she recited the numerous obstacles the $12.2-million complex has faced since city leaders first discussed it more than 25 years ago.

“This is a celebration of a dream realized.”

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Scheduled for completion in August, 1991, the 63,700-square-foot center will include a 497-seat theater, a visual arts wing, a performing arts wing, a children’s art center, a community meeting hall with banquet seating for 300 and a 15,000-square-foot festival plaza with a small outdoor stage.

In addition, Epson America, which this summer will complete construction of its national headquarters within sight of the arts complex, will pay for an authentic Japanese garden, expected to cost as much as $300,000.

Although a city bond measure will pay most of the construction costs, private donors have given more than $1 million to the project, including $250,000 from developer Frank Torino to build the plaza, $250,000 from Watt Homes Industries, $500,000 from Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., and $30,000 raised by the Torrance Youth Council through bake sales and craft booths over a seven-year period.

Operators of other South Bay arts facilities said they welcome Torrance’s project.

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“There is always the friendly competition between different cultural entities, but we really don’t see Torrance . . . taking dollars out of our pockets,” said Vincent Beggs, director of the Palos Verdes Arts Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. “There is plenty of room for everyone.”

Peter Lesnik, director of the Norris Theatre for the Performing Arts in Rolling Hills Estates, said the upcoming competition from the Torrance theater “will be a healthy thing.”

“It’s like restaurants--the more restaurants you find on a block, the more people tend to go to each one of them,” Lesnik said. “The more theaters and culture and entertainment there is in an area, the more likely people will look there when they’re thinking about spending an evening out.”

Lesnik and Bob Stewart, manager of the Torrance complex, said they plan to coordinate their bookings so the theaters avoid direct competition.

Plans for the four-building Torrance complex, to be built on a bare patch of ground in the northwest corner of the Civic Center, have changed numerous times through the years.

It began modestly enough in 1964 with the completion of the city’s Joslyn Center, a small building directly across from the police station. Originally intended to be the first of two arts center phases, Joslyn Center stood alone for years as the more pressing needs of streets, libraries and parks drained away money that city leaders had hoped to use to build more facilities for the arts.

In 1971, hopes for an expanded arts complex were rekindled when sponsors of an $18-million parkland bond measure designated $1 million for a community theater. But voters rejected the measure and the city’s attention turned to other things.

“There were a lot of nuts-and-bolts type projects being done,” Geissert said. “The city had so many pressing needs.”

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Ten years later, City Council members asked a consultant to study Torrance’s recreational needs. The consultant recommended building a 400- or 500-seat theater, several exercise and arts studios, and a large meeting hall.

The council adopted a cultural arts center master plan and began staging community hearings in 1983. For two years, debate over the complex’s future raged, with one faction insisting that Torrance’s cultural facilities were woefully inadequate while another argued that the city’s money could be better spent and that any arts complex should be built entirely with private donations.

On May 28, 1985, council members voted 6 to 1, with Councilman Bill Applegate opposed, to issue $9.4 million in bonds to pay for the complex. At the time, officials predicted that they would stage a groundbreaking within 18 months.

One month away from the scheduled groundbreaking, however, the city received construction bids that were more than 60% over budget, leading to the architect’s dismissal and throwing the project’s future into limbo.

Determined council members returned to the drawing board, hired a new architect and staged more public hearings. Last month, they accepted a construction bid 10% over budget.


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