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Think Park First

By Frank Gruber

May 26, 2011 -- As I watched the dramatic City Council meeting Tuesday night -- the one where the council, down one member because Council Member Terry O’Day was home recuperating from an emergency appendectomy, could not muster four votes either to spend nearly $50 million of redevelopment money to renovate the Civic Auditorium or not to spend the money, I could not help asking myself, “what if there hadn’t been an earthquake?”

It was after the 1994 quake that Santa Monica -- despite a decided lack of the “blight” that is usually required for redevelopment -- was able to include most of the city in a vast redevelopment district. Based on that seismic break the City Council has found itself with discretion over hundreds of millions of dollars, money that does not directly cost their constituents a dime.

Free money!

Of course, as fate would have it, the most significant appreciation in property values, on which redevelopment funding depends, didn’t occur until recently, near the end of the redevelopment district’s 20-year term, which meant that the City had to scramble to spend hundreds million dollars in only a few years. Then, just as the City was finding a way to do that, along comes Jerry Brown, who gets elected governor and says that he wants to shut redevelopment down in the whole state.

Which meant that the City has had to scramble even faster, frontloading redevelopment money into those projects that were closest to shovel ready. One of those is the Civic Auditorium -- just a couple of months ago the idea was to spend $25 million of redevelopment money on the Civic, now that’s been increased to $46.8 million.

Historical digression. About 15 years ago I was the co-chair of a committee formed to persuade Santa Monica voters to approve a bond issue to raise money to build the Public Safety Building behind the City Hall. The bonds would have been paid back by an increase in property taxes, and under state law (Prop. 13) the bonds required approval by a two-thirds vote.

Although you might expect that a public safety headquarters would be a slam dunk in a city where the police and fire unions believe they have a lot of credibility with the voters, our measure fell short by a couple of percentage points. The City later issued revenue bonds, which did not require voter approval but presumably carried a higher interest rate, to build the facility.

The Prop. 13 two-thirds requirement for property tax increases is one of the reasons California is falling apart, but it does tend to focus your mind if you’re a member of a city council or a city manager and you want to build something. You can imagine how liberating it must feel for council members and city staff not to have to ask the voters for approval when there was something good to build, and then not having to give the locals a bill for it either.

One of the moments during Tuesday night’s meeting when I recalled this history was when Mayor Richard Bloom was asked a question about whether he thought that when the “community” had expressed enthusiasm for renovating the Civic Auditorium they had considered how much it would cost; Mayor Bloom answered that, well, he thought that the desires had been “aspirational.”

I can relate to that: a lot of my life has been “aspirational.”

Santa Monica is a city that celebrates public process, but sometimes process can be misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean that the whole community wants the Civic to be upgraded to a somewhat improved version of itself and operated by a private, commercial concert and theater promoter, if a plan for doing that is developed in community meetings attended by residents who are mostly self-selected lovers of the performing arts and then reviewed by the Arts Commission. And, as Council Member Gleam Davis made clear Tuesday night, it doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a price tag attached.

Tonight, hopefully with Mr. O’Day on the dais, the council will take up the matter again.

It is clear that something has to be done with the Civic, but as I have written before, spending this amount of redevelopment funds, which may be free but could still be used in Santa Monica for better purposes, doesn’t make sense.

I am not against spending public money to support the arts and culture; longtime readers of this column may recall that I was a strong supporter of building the Madison site theater, now known as the Broad Stage. That facility cost $40 million; the money came from a Santa Monica College facilities bond that the voters passed.

The Broad is multi-purpose in the best sense: it not only is a perfect venue for the kind of programming presented there, but by day it serves an educational purpose. It is also operated by an administration hired and controlled by SMC, and is dedicated to presenting works that are not typically available commercially.

The City is proposing to spend $50 million (plus much more for parking if it finally builds the park at Fourth and Pico that’s been in the Civic Center Specific Plan for almost 20 years) in the hope that the Nederlander Organization will make it all work, but with no long-term commitment on their part. If the Nederlanders find the facility unprofitable, they could walk away, leaving the City in the same situation it finds itself now, but after having spent $50 million.

If a majority on the Council decides tonight not to fund the current plan, new ideas will be needed to figure out what to do with the Civic. This will be daunting task for the City staff that has, after all, only followed the council’s instructions, over the years, to get to this point. But it will be for the best. It’s now time to plan the park that will replace the Civic’s parking lot, and the future of the Civic cannot be planned separately from the plans for the new park, because they should work together.

Historical note: the park could commemorate the African-American neighborhood that the City destroyed to build the Civic, a loss that was more tragic than the loss of the “beloved” Civic Auditorium would ever be.

Ideally, a new benefactor, a new Broad Foundation perhaps, would come along with an art collection looking for a home, and be willing to convert and repurpose the Civic into a museum.

Or something like that. In any case, maybe the plan will be so attractive that the City could pass a bond issue to fund it.

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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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