City Hall theater seat reductions decried

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The Malibu Performing Arts Center, which is the site of the new city hall, has seen many high-end performers, but the city council says future use would be limited because of noise concerns during working hours.

By Olivia Damavandi / Assistant Editor

The debate over the $3.7 million remodel plan for the new city hall, also known as the former Malibu Performing Arts Center, became heated during a special city council meeting last Thursday.

The main controversy involves the amount of seating in the center’s existing 500-person theater, which the preliminary design plans have reduced to 230.

The city in June purchased the 35,000-square-foot building for $15 million in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings from former owner Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Located on Stewart Ranch Road, adjacent to the current city hall, the center’s theater also includes a state-of-the-art recording studio (utilized by music artists such as Barbra Streisand and Tom Petty, among others).

With the preliminary design plans, approximately 4,200 square feet has been slated for community and public uses, including a 1,300-square-foot multi-purpose/banquet room, a 1,300-square-foot senior center, a 1,000-square-foot teen center, a 475-square-foot meeting room and a 140-square-foot office for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Approximately 8,900 square feet have been set aside for performing arts and media uses. As proposed, the project consists of 31,000 square feet of improvements and would be completed by February 2011.

According to a city staff report, the seating in the theater was reduced from 500 to 230 in order to make it a more appropriate venue to hold council meetings and to make available previously unusable space for city staff or a public area.

However, some residents and arts advocates see the theater as a tremendous asset to the community, and say reducing its seating would render it useless as both a live concert venue and a recording studio. They also say it would spoil the city’s potential to generate income through renting the theater out for public use.

“We are at risk in our school systems for support in cultural and arts opportunities,” Deborah Kramer, president of Malibu Ballet and Performing Arts Society, told the council. “I realize there is a primary agenda, which is city council needs, but there’s an extraordinary resource embedded in this building. Our students have to go to Santa Monica or Agoura to take dance lessons on floors that won’t damage their feet.”

“The capacity of 235 will eliminate all types of competitiveness for main acts to come to the facility,” Moss Jacobs, vice president of talent at Nederlander Concerts, told the council. “Below 500 you’re out of the game-500 is the tipping point for acts to think about it as a viable place to play. It’s a jewel that you have here.”

Council members said a 100-seat reduction is mandatory because the building is only permitted for a 400-person theater, and directed staff to bring back revised designs increasing the number of theater seats, and to review the location of the council office and a possible relocation of the teen center. However, the council expressed doubts about how often they would be able to rent the theater. City officials added that the theater’s acoustics would hinder the ability to rent it during city hall hours because noise reverberations traveled throughout the entire building.

“That [center has] been opened, we’ve owned it for six months and nobody has reserved it for a performance,” Mayor Sharon Barovsky said. “I’m excited about the ability to have a recording studio but you cannot use it Monday to Friday during business hours. It just shakes the whole building. That really eliminated a lot of people who inquired about it being used.”

“We had originally assumed that this building would provide a substantial amount of revenue for the city,” Assistant City Manager Reva Feldman said. “We know it’s a jewel but we can’t fit everything in and make it work.”

Options for funding the $3.7 million cost of construction include an appropriation from the city’s general fund undesignated reserve or the issuance of certificates of participation. If the city were to issue COPs, the estimate on the debt service associated with a $2.5 million issuance would be $175,000 per year. The COPs could be structured with call features that would allow the city to pay the debt in full prior to the 30-year debt service time period.

“I’d like to find some way we could preserve as much as the Performing Arts Center as possible,” Councilmember John Sibert said. “But still, we can’t lose sight of number one-a functioning city hall that has to take care of the needs of the city.”