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Segerstrom Center launches $68-million drive to redesign plaza and cover fundraising failure

Segerstrom Center launches $68-million drive to redesign plaza and cover fundraising failure
Artist's rendering of Segerstrom Center for the Arts, aerial view. (Michael Maltzan Architecture)

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts has launched a $68-million campaign to reach a broader, more diverse public, centered on reconfiguring its outdoor plaza to make it busier and more attractive, with stepped-up free events and a shady, "town square" atmosphere.

While the Costa Mesa performing arts center's "Next Act" campaign looks to its future, its president, Terrence Dwyer, acknowledged this week that most of the money will be used to make up for a large fundraising failure from nearly a decade ago.

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Dwyer said that all but about $14 million of the money that's being raised will cover expenses from past projects, including the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and the plaza, which opened in 2006. The center borrowed $240 million to build them, then fell more than $50 million short in its campaign to raise enough funds to cover interest payments on the construction bonds and eventually pay off the principal.

In planning sessions over the last two years or more, Dwyer said, "the board said we need to take care of our financial [issues], but we must plan for a future of community relevance. When you say you're creating a 'town square,' you say you're creating a space everyone can use and where everyone is welcome."

The campaign has yielded $42 million in donations and pledges, the center announced Thursday, topped by $13.5 million from longtime Orange County cultural donors Julianne and George Argyros. The reconfigured, 46,000-square-foot plaza will be named for them. It's steps away from South Coast Repertory and its 336-seat Julianne Argyros Stage.

Dwyer said that construction of the plaza design by Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan could begin in January and take about a year to complete.

Features include new outdoor spiral staircases to the north and south of the center's oldest and biggest venue, the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, which opened in 1986. The staircase on the plaza side will have an outdoor cafe tucked beneath it and a platform at the top that Maltzan sees as a rendezvous point with striking views of the arts campus, which eventually is expected to include a new home for the Orange County Museum of Art as well as the Segerstrom Center and South Coast Rep.

Two permanent concrete outdoor stages will be built on the plaza, backed by the south wall of Segerstrom Hall. They're intended for a variety of community-oriented performances and events, some sponsored by the center and its major resident groups, including the Pacific Symphony, and some by smaller performance and community groups that will be invited to use the plaza rent-free.

The idea, Dwyer said, is to make the plaza a reliably busy yet relaxing place to visit. Maltzan's plan includes installing three tree-shaded, park-like "groves" with seating, on what's now a bare, sun-drenched paved expanse. The most striking current feature, Richard Serra's 66-foot, rust-colored steel sculpture, "Connector," will remain in place.

"It's about [cultivating] the audiences of the future, our kids and grandkids," said John Ginger, chairman of the Segerstrom Center's board. "We hope to make it more inviting for a broader piece of the population, with a dramatic increase in events."

Dwyer said that even after adding the groves of ornamental pear trees, the plaza will be able to accommodate about 2,000 people for large outdoor events such as the free movies and occasional simulcasts that the center screens on the blank south wall of Segerstrom Hall.

The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles has long imagined a comparable reconfiguration of its own plaza, to make it better suited to outdoor events and more inviting as a public gathering place. Plans have been on the drawing board for more than a decade for a project that's now estimated to cost $30 million. To move forward the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors would have to OK a proposed $25-million county share. The Segerstrom Center is privately funded.

Besides its plaza makeover, the Segerstrom campaign aims to raise an unspecified amount in start-up funding for two programming initiatives.

Center Without Boundaries will connect the performing arts center, Orange County's biggest cultural institution, with community organizations away from its campus. Dwyer said it will expand upon existing partnerships with non-arts institutions such as Children's Hospital of Orange County and Camp Pendleton, where the center has provided arts tutoring for ailing youngsters and performances for families of Marines serving overseas.

Without specifying a figure, Dwyer said the campaign will collect enough money to sustain the Without Boundaries program and a new Center for Dance and Innovation for a start-up period of three years, giving them time to attract new donors who'll continue to fund them.

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The Center for Dance and Innovation includes a new ballet school based at the center that's being overseen by one of its regular touring attractions, New York-based American Ballet Theatre. Dwyer said more than 160 youngsters ages 3 to 14 have enrolled for training that starts full time in September, after earlier pilot offerings. One spiral staircase Maltzan has designed will provide a more direct and attractive path from the center's parking garage to the dance school's main venue, the Judy Morr Theater, which was part of the original 1986 campus and is attached to the north end of Segerstrom Hall.

Architect Maltzan said that artist Serra is one of his major influences and that one of his design priorities was to avoid encroaching on the monumental "Connector" sculpture, which viewers can enter and use as an echo chamber.

"It needed to be given the right amount of space, to not be crowded, and to be able to exist in a strong, iconic way," Maltzan said. He said the spiral staircases provide an architectural echo of sorts by resonating with the arch in the facade of Segerstrom Hall and the spiral staircase and chandelier, visible from the plaza, in the lobby of architect Cesar Pelli's glass-fronted concert hall.

The consequences of the center's failed fundraising campaign for the concert hall in the 2000s have included ongoing costs that in recent years topped $3 million annually in interest and other payments related to the construction bonds. The center also spent $36 million in 2010 and 2011 to retire a portion of the bonds, lowering its interest liability and relaxing certain financial restrictions related to carrying a bigger bond debt.

The center had reduced its debt to $190.6 million as of mid-2014, according to its most recent available public financial statement. The debt still exceeded the $185.5 million in the center's investment portfolio.

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