Conservancy News


Join Conservancy Executive Director Kaitlin Drisko over Zoom on November 10th for the first episode of Site Specific, a new series of free lunchtime conversations. A preservation architect with over 30 years of experience, Drisko will invite community members and colleagues to share about their current work. First up is a conversation with the team responsible for the current restoration of the Church in Ocean Park! More details to come.

Last month, Drisko talked with Leah Schwartz of the Argonaut about being of service to Santa Monica and the importance of community outreach.

Click here to read the article!

(Conservancy Executive Director Kaitlin Drisko. Photo: Catherine Azimi)

Earlier this month, Alec Nedelman was elected to serve as the Conservancy’s 11th member of the Board of Directors by a unanimous vote. As a long-standing Conservancy supporter and volunteer, his experience has already proved invaluable to the organization, and we are thrilled that he will assume a position on the board.

Professionally, Nedelman has been a trusted advisor and counselor to real estate clients and for-profit and not-for-profit companies, providing them with the critical thinking needed to reason through unexpected issues and opportunities. He has over 40 years of experience helping clients and companies analyze, structure, negotiate and implement complex commercial transactions, including financings, ground leases, and workouts and restructurings. During that same time period, he has been involved with helping over a dozen not-for-profits with board governance, fund raising, mission fulfillment and retreats.
On his Conservancy involvement, Nedelman says, “If we destroy our history, how are we going to learn from the past? The Conservancy plays a vital role in preservation, adaptive reuse, and education about Santa Monica‘s communal history. As a Board member, I am looking forward to working with the other directors to learn from them and contribute to the Conservancy’s many successful programs.”

Photo of the Civic Auditorium by Julius Shulman in 1958. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Since making their Civic Auditorium Feasibility Study public in August (click here to access the Study), the School District has been meeting with City Council members in small groups to discuss and answer questions, as well as scheduling outreach presentations with local stakeholder groups. Under the Surplus Land Act (click here to read the City’s FAQS for Designation of the Civic Auditorium as Surplus Land), the City Council will discuss any proposal from the School District in closed session, tentatively at their Oct. 10th meeting. The public could be expected to know more about the District’s proposal after that.

Last week the Conservancy submitted a letter to the School District to articulate our views on their current Feasibility Study. As part of the letter, the Conservancy has identified the following critical priorities for any proposal for the rehabilitation and revitalization of the Civic Auditorium:

  • All of the work must be completed in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.
  • The landmark must remain under the purview of the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission for design review, following the procedures in the Landmarks Ordinance.
  • The property should not be fenced or screened, limiting physical or visual access to the parcel or views toward the Civic Auditorium.
  • The building’s cultural and architectural history should be shared through historic programming, school curricula, cultural memory projects and/or interpretive displays at the site.

The Conservancy now adds to that list of priorities that:

  • The property should be revitalized consistent with the original public uses of the building – or any compatible community-serving use which can be implemented consistently with the Secretary of the Interior Standards.

Click here to read the Conservancy’s letter in full.

The future of Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium continues to be an urgent topic of debate and discussion in the community. The City has offered the Civic as surplus land and the School District (SMMUSD) is a current proposer.

Finally, after months of closed-session meetings, we have a detailed picture of SMMUSD’s vision for the historic property, in the form of a Feasibility Study. The results of the study will be formally presented tonight (August 17) at a public Board of Education meeting, beginning at 5:30 p.m. The public may attend the meeting in-person at the District Administrative Offices (1717 4th St., Santa Monica, CA) or via Zoom webinar (meeting ID: 876 8239 0636; passcode: 420935; call-in number: 669.900.6833). The meeting will also be live-streamed to the SMMUSD YouTube channel:

In addition to making public comment at the meeting, community members can make comments and ask questions about the proposal through Let’s Talk at Click on the “Santa Monica Civic Auditorium Discussion” button.

The Conservancy’s current priority is that the nationally significant building retains its Landmark designation by the City of Santa Monica. We are carefully analyzing the Feasibility Study to determine if the SMMUSD’s proposal would lead not only to the successful adaptive reuse of the landmark, but to a function that serves the community’s longstanding desire to see the Civic function in its historic use as a public venue.Click here to read our letter to the SMMUSD Board of Education stating our current position on the study.Click here to read the SMMUSD’s Feasibility Study.

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