Valley Performing Arts Center opens at Cal State Northridge

As home to the new Valley Performing Arts Center, Cal State Northridge hopes to become the cultural heart of the San Fernando Valley, as well as its intellectual hub.

The $125-million arts center, which opened Saturday, could become the signature landmark of the 52-year-old campus, drawing world-class orchestras, productions and entertainers while enhancing the university’s academic arts programs.

Patrons attending the opening gala, however, passed near a far different symbol of the campus: bent and pockmarked remains of a parking structure that collapsed during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. They are sunk into the ground of a commemorative sculpture garden, a reminder of nature’s power.

The magnitude 6.7 temblor struck in the early morning of Jan. 17, causing more than $400 million in damage to Cal State Northridge. Each of the school’s more than 100 buildings sustained damage; some had to be demolished and rebuilt.


Many administrators feared that students would leave and not come back.

Most did return, however, and classes resumed two weeks late as officials inspected and assessed the damage. Negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency lasted years in some cases. The last temporary buildings were removed in 2002, and major reconstruction ended in 2004.

Now, the opening of the 1,700-seat performing arts center, with its striking, curved-glass exterior, fulfills a long-held dream of campus leaders.

“It allows the university to take the strength of our academic programs and create a platform to reach out to people in the area,” said Cal State Northridge President Jolene Koester.

With 35,000 students, the school reflects the growth and diversity of the Valley, officials said. California’s fiscal crisis has proved a test, however, forcing enrollment cuts and other painful cost-saving measures.

But Cal State Northridge officials say the quake has provided an opportunity to remake the campus and shift academic programs to meet workforce demands.

Business and government leaders say the campus has rebounded well, and many credit Koester and former President Blenda Wilson.

“My impression was that it was a little sleepy place out in the Valley,” said California State University Chancellor Charles B. Reed. “People knew it was there but didn’t really know it was there.”

The earthquake, Reed said, gave the campus a chance to say, “We’re an important part of this community and a big part of the economic viability of this region.”

Funding for the arts center has come from public and private sources, including $58 million in state school bond money, about $5 million from the Cal State system and more than $15 million in campus-based funds. The final $15 million to $20 million still must be raised.

Officials hope to secure a major gift that would confer naming rights, said Vance T. Peterson, the campus’ vice president for university advancement.

Use of public funds is a sensitive issue at a time when Cal State Northridge and other state colleges have had to slash spending, turn away qualified students and furlough staff. The project, though, was conceived 10 years ago and construction began before the recession hit.

The performing arts center has won broad public support and will provide a shot in the arm to the Valley’s economy and cultural standing, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

No longer will nearly 2 million Valley residents have to drive downtown or to the Westside for opera, theater and dance. The county kicked in about $3 million for the project.

“The transformation is amazing,” said Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. A Northridge student in 1994, Waldman recalls early morning classes after the quake, in bungalows with no heat, the breath of students and instructors visible.

Biology professor Steven Oppenheimer conducted cancer research out of a trailer after the quake destroyed his lab. Now, he’s in a high-tech lab in a new science building.

“This is a superb facility, and the performing arts center is a masterpiece,” said Oppenheimer, who was recognized by the White House last year.

The challenge, campus leaders said, is to continue to make progress in the face of dwindling state funding.

Dealing with this year’s budget cuts will not be easy, Koester said, but she and the campus will forge ahead. “They hurt, they have consequences, but I refuse to be bowed,” she said.