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What Price History?

By Frank Gruber

May 23, 2011 -- Tomorrow night the Santa Monica City Council will decide whether to spend $46.8 million of redevelopment money to renovate the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

City staff is recommending the expenditure to enable a deal with the Nederlander Organization to run the facility. Staff has worked hard getting this deal -- the Nederlanders were the only promoters who showed any interest in working with the City on the Civic -- but in my view the deal is ephemeral because it will involve no capital investments or long-term obligations on the part of the Nederlanders.

Under the deal, the City will also be obligated to spend millions beyond the $46.8 million on underground parking, yet at staff’s best guess, the City will, at the end of the day, still be subsidizing the facility to the tune of nearly $2 million per year. There’s no indication that the events the Nederlanders will book will be any different from the events commercial promoters produce regularly in the L.A. area, although I’ve been told by staff that once the facility is renovated there will be possibilities for additional uses.

To give some context, the proposal to spend the redevelopment money is part of a plan to accelerate expenditures of about $150 million of earthquake redevelopment funds before the State of California can eliminate redevelopment. The City’s original plan was to spend $25 million of redevelopment money on the Civic and raise the other $21.8 million from other sources, but while other projects are not ready, staff figures the City can commit to spending the money on the Civic before the state can act.

Some of the City’s proposals to spend redevelopment money are reasonable, assuming you accept the premise behind redevelopment that it is okay for a prosperous city like Santa Monica to use taxes otherwise going to schools, the county and the state to fund local infrastructure. But at least the new park near the Pier, which will serve people from all over, improvements to Colorado Avenue to connect the Expo light rail terminus with the Pier, affordable housing, and the Pico library, are legitimate and prudent uses of public money.

In contrast, to understand how bad the Civic Auditorium deal is you only need to read the analysis that the City received recently from consultants on the possibilities for raising private money to invest in the renovation. According to the report net income from events will never come close to covering overhead costs, which will grow to almost $3.2 million in the tenth year of the deal, no private investor would invest money in the project, and to the extent that the City could raise any money from private sources, by, for example, selling off concession rights, the payback to those investors would make the City’s financial situation correspondingly worse.

The only way to raise money that would be free to the City would be through philanthropy, but ask yourself, for all the hot air about how beloved the Civic is, or how historic, do you see raising $50 million to save it? Somehow I don’t see Wallis Annenberg or Eli Broad helping out on this one.

Back in 2002 the council approved the Landmarks Commission’s designation of the Civic as a city landmark. The late Herb Katz had wisely appealed the commission’s decision; he was concerned that landmarking the Civic would tie the City’s hands when it came time to making decisions about its future. But staff and Landmarks Commissioners persuaded the council that any changes the city would want to make could be made within the parameters of historic renovation.

By landmarking the Civic, the City in effect vowed to preserve forever an ugly and impractical facility that should never have been built in the first place. Not everything that is old or famous because of what happened there should be preserved in perpetuity, without taking into account consequences like the need to spend $20 million for seismic and ADA upgrades.

Now, to preserve and perpetuate mediocrity the City is considering taking nearly $50 million from the schools, the County and the State, plus more millions to build parking under the park that nearly 20 years ago the City promised to build to replace the Civic’s parking lot. (Not to mention that building parking under the park would violate the Civic Center Specific Plan, which prohibits buildign parking underneath parks.)

Coincidentally, last week Santa Monica hosted the annual meeting of the California Preservation Foundation, and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a few sessions. What I learned is that there are no easy answers when it comes to preservation of historic buildings; there is an ongoing philosophical conflict between the urge to preserve the past while accommodating future change.

People often want to commemorate past events. The events may be encased in memory, but memories are evanescent, and people naturally focus on the buildings where the events occurred. The Civic is remembered, among other things, for concerts that took place there in the 60s and 70s, but the facility became uneconomical for the music business. So what is the City preserving in the name of these memories? A particularly poor work by architect Welton Becket, a mediocre modernist at best?

The concerts of that era are, of course, well documented in other media, and don’t need a building to be remembered. The famous 1964 T.A.M.I. show at the Civic was produced as a television broadcast and is preserved as a movie. From a historical point of view, preserving the movie is more important than preserving the Civic. But let’s face it: as cool as the T.A.M.I. show and those other concerts were, the rock ‘n roll business (as opposed, say, to the fitness craze that started at Muscle Beach) was never particularly associated with Santa Monica; these concerts and broadcasts took place all over the country.

There are reasons for government to invest in cultural facilities and to preserve old places, but making choices between what deserves government support and what doesn’t requires judgment. You be the judge: in the name of saving a dubious landmark, should Santa Monica and the taxpayers of California subsidize the commercial concert promotion business?

* * *

City Manager Rod Gould and City Attorney Marsha Moutrie have required Gwynne Pugh’s removal from the Planning Commission before he could apply to become a potential consultant to the City on urban design projects. ("Pugh Leaves Planning Commision," May 20, 2011) This raises important issues.

In 2004 Mr. Pugh was one of the first planning commissioners the City Council appointed in the post-Kelly Olson era. After the council in 1999-2000 turned the commission over entirely to non-professionals drawn mostly from neighborhood associations, which politicized the commission and caused chaos, the council wisely began choosing planning commissioners with expertise in the planning field (and who could keep themselves from insulting planning staff).

Since replacing Mr. Olson with Terry O’Day in 2003, the council has made a series of exemplary appointments to the commission. These new commissioners included two prominent architects active in Santa Monica, Mr. Pugh and Hank Koning, as well as other commissioners who are active in the field of urban design or development.

Mr. Pugh and Mr. Koning have active practices based in Santa Monica. The City itself as well as affiliated entities, such as Community Corporation, have hired them frequently; for example, Mr. Koning’s firm is currently designing the Pico library. When these or other projects in Santa Monica come before the Planning Commission, they recuse themselves. No doubt this can create some awkwardness, but the benefits of having engaged professionals on the commission has been immeasurable.

The updates to the land use and circulation elements of the general plan could not have been so successful without input from the professionals on the commission.

The council also appoints architects and other professionals who work in the city to other commissions, such as the Architectural Review Board (where some seats are designated for architects and landscape architects), the Arts Commission, the Landmarks Commission, and no doubt other boards and commissions.

Mr. Gould and Ms. Moultrie apparently have determined that a change in policy is required. They have the obligation to explain their rationale, and the limits of the policy, to the public and to the City Council.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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