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School District Releases Plans for Civic Auditorium

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By Jorge Casuso

August 11, 2023 -- The School District on Friday unveiled a nearly $227 million plan -- excluding the purchase cost -- to renovate and re-adapt the Civic Auditorium.

The Civic Auditorium Feasibility Study -- which will be presented to the School Board on Thursday -- "examines and details how the facility can be brought back to use and retain its historic integrity," District officials said.

The plan was released some two weeks after the City Council voted to termination negotiations with Community Corporation to buy the iconic landmark for affordable housing.

Civic Auditorium 1958
Civic Auditorium in 1958 (Images from School District's Feasibility Study)

The $226,570,000 construction plan for the 65-year-old structure on a 3-acre site the City declared “surplus land” envisions a "safe and accessible building" that can be used as a multipurpose space," said the statement issued by District officials on Friday

The space would include a "gymnasium, theater/auditorium, concert venue, exhibit facility, banquet hall and other Samohi, District and community uses."

The District, said Superintendent Dr. Antonio Shelton, "has a strong interest in the purchase and preservation of this historic multi-use facility providing the City and residents with an opportunity for a trusted community partner to restore and bring this community treasure back to life,”

The plan -- which with accompanying documents is 567 pages -- provides a "viable' way to "improve and expedite the Santa Monica High School Campus Plan and restore the historic Civic Auditorium."

"The purchase and modernization of the Civic would add much needed land space to Samohi thereby enabling re-envisioning the ongoing improvements occurring as the District implements the Samohi Campus Plan," officials said.

"It would decrease the overall duration of the Samohi Campus Plan by nearly eight years and reduce the overall costs to Santa Monica taxpayers."

The Civic Auditorium Feasibility Study does not provide the comparable costs of pursuing the Campus Plan.

The plan also would preserve the historic landmark that was shuttered by the City a decade ago and requires "seismic, accessibility and other upgrades to operate safely."

"The District’s vision includes renovating the Civic to bring its structural and architectural components up to modern construction codes while at the same time updating its intended use to accommodate the needs of the District, the City and the Santa Monica community."

Civic Auditorium in 1958

The presentation to the Board comes after the Council voted in closed session on July 25 to end negotiations with Community Corporation to purchase the sprawling 1950s building for affordable housing.

Two days before the District issued its plan, the Santa Monica Conservancy sent an "advocacy alert" via email that backs efforts to adapt the use of the architectural landmark.

"In historic preservation, the best use of a vacant landmark is always the original use," wrote Carol Lemlein and Ruthann Lehrer, who co-chair the Conservancy's Advocacy Committee.

"But adaptive reuse can also be successful if the use fits and does not require substantial alterations that undermine the building’s ability to convey its historic significance and architectural value."

Lemlein and Lehrer noted that the Civic Auditorium faces "daunting" challenges, including rehabilitation costs that in 2009 were estimated at $59 million.

The City's unsuccessful efforts in 2017 to solicit proposals for a long-term ground lease for a public-private partnership "show that City funding may be required to entice a worthy developer to define its operations," the two co-chairs wrote.

"The bottom line for the Conservancy is ultimately the survival and renewed life for this landmark building via a successful rehabilitation project that meets preservation standards, whether it continues as a performance and community event space or in an adaptive reuse project for Santa Monica families and children," they wrote.

The Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), the most prominent local slow-growth group, has taken a different stand.

The group announced it is mounting a grassroots effort to restore the moth-balled auditorium as a prominent public venue ("Council Ends Negotiations to Sell Civic Auditorium for Affordable Housing," July 27, 2023).

The Coalition is forming a steering committee to "stop the City Council from liquidating something that belongs to ALL OF US."

It also is searching for a partner for the cash-strapped City that can restore the local landmark to its former use.

After the study is presented at the School Board on Thursday, the Board is expected to vote to proceed negotiating with the City to purchase the Civic.

Editors note: A previous version of this report used the Civic Auditorium Feasibility Study's estimated construction cost of nearly $140 million. A more detailed cost estimate in the School District's power point presentation estimates the cost would be $226,570,000.

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