News & Advocacy

Advocacy Alert: What Are the Options for the Civic Auditorium?

August 10, 2023

The Civic Auditorium is an iconic mid-20th century architectural landmark, with a history woven into our community’s memories. In addition to being a City landmark, it is eligible for state and national recognition for its architectural and cultural significance. The Civic is also a site of erasure that points to the social and economic impact of 1950s era redevelopment policies which displaced hundreds of Black households in Santa Monica. All of these stories should be acknowledged through preservation and our continued community use.

The Civic has been closed since 2013 and was declared as surplus property by the City in October 2022. Prior to its closure, it was being used for flat-floor trade shows.

Passion for preservation of the Civic Auditorium by residents has recently emerged in response to closed City Council meeting sessions this past July. During the closed sessions, Council considered the Civic’s potential sale to two bidders: Community Corporation for affordable housing (this proposal has since been rejected) and the Santa Monica Unified School District for sports and gymnasium uses. Letters objecting to the disposal of such a valuable community asset in an opaque process without public discussion or debate have flooded City Council. The lack of transparency and focus on short-term financial gain upset many residents who view this building as defining to our cultural identity. Many are working to form a new group called Save the Civic.

The Santa Monica Conservancy welcomes these voices, as they echo the recommendations of the Civic Working Group, which made a comprehensive report on the future of the Civic Auditorium to City Council in December 2015. The Civic Working Group was a multi-year community engagement project to investigate potential futures for the site. Led by Conservancy Board Member Nina Fresco, the process involved extensive City staff resources, robust community participation, workshops, and exhaustive exploration of alternatives.

The Working Group’s ultimate recommendation was to continue the Civic’s original cultural arts and entertainment mixed-use, to serve as the anchor of a new 10-acre cultural center repurposing the surface parking lots surrounding the Auditorium. However, subsequent to the Working Group’s report, the City chose to proceed with the installation of a Sports Field on the surface parking area in accordance with the approved Civic Center Specific Plan, thus limiting development options. Click here to read that plan.  Then, in 2017 the City issued a Request for Proposals for a long-term ground lease for a public/private partnership. This effort was not successful, leading to the current City strategy to declare the property as Surplus Land for sale or long-term lease to potential bidders.

Between 2019-2021 the Department of Cultural Affairs produced a public art project called Belmar History + Art on part of the original Civic Auditorium site. This inspired the Department’s Reframe initiative that is currently focused on the murals in City Hall. Belmar History + Art saw artist April Banks and Historian Alison Rose Jefferson work together with community members to commemorate and celebrate the predominantly Black neighborhood of Belmar, that was razed through eminent domain to make way for the Civic in the 1950s.The project was unveiled at what is now called Historic Belmar Park in 2021, and consists of a history exhibition and sculptural installation adjacent to the sports field, as well as an educational program and website. Photo: A Resurrection in Four Stanzas by April Banks, courtesy of Santa Monica Department of Cultural Affairs. 

In historic preservation, the best use of a vacant landmark is always the original use. 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. We hope that the existing SMMUSD proposal will include some public community uses and look forward to information from them.

Santa Monica prides itself on being a leader in arts and cultural activities. But the challenges for the Civic are daunting – there are significant costs for rehabilitation (in 2009 estimated at $59 million) – and past proposals show that City funding may be required to entice a worthy developer to define its operations.

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.

Review the storied history of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the Landmarks Commission Statement of Official Action here.

By Carol Lemlein and Ruthann Lehrer, Advocacy Committee Co-Chairs

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