Santa Monica School District expresses interest in buying the SM Civic Auditorium

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The landmark building on Main Street was once the home to concerts, exhibitions, the 1963 Academy Awards, and of course the annual Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Stairway of the Stars music program for decades. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT.

What does potential purchase mean for Malibu?   

It’s been a full decade since there’s been any activity at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The landmark building on Main Street was once the home to concerts, exhibitions, the 1963 Academy Awards, and of course the annual Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Stairway of the Stars music program for decades. Deemed seismically unsafe, the building has been vacant while occupying prime real estate in the heart of bustling Santa Monica. Now SMMUSD officials are looking to buy the “surplus” property across from Santa Monica High School in order to turn it into a gym and sports facility for the school.

But with an impending split from the district, would Malibu be on the hook for a no doubt pricey purchase? According to SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker, if the district is able to buy the landmark auditorium and adjacent land, Malibu will “not bear any cost or responsibility for any aspect of the project.” 

That’s because voters of both cities in 2018 each overwhelmingly approved two separate bond measures for school improvements in each city. The $195 million Measure M in Malibu is a general obligation bond dedicated to improving Malibu pathway school facilities. 

The money is being used to upgrade technology, increase safety and security through fire alarm upgrades and gate access improvements, and to modernize and build new facilities at multiple campuses in support of 21st-century learning. The bond was approved through the newly created School Facilities Improvement District No. 2 (Malibu schools). The tax area includes the properties in the city of Malibu and the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County within the school district boundaries. The funds can only be used to improve Malibu schools and expand the self-determination of the Malibu schools.

Bond proceeds are being used to complete the elementary schools’ alignment projects and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at Malibu and Webster elementary schools; and new construction at Malibu Middle and High School.

Santa Monica’s much larger $485 million Measure SMS is a general obligation bond dedicated to improving Santa Monica school facilities. The new School Facilities Improvement District No. 1 (Santa Monica) is restricted to Santa Monica voters and schools. This money will be used to upgrade technology, increase safety and security through fire alarm upgrades and gate access improvements, and to modernize and build new facilities at multiple campuses. 

The primary focus of Measure SMS will be to continue implementing the SAMOHI Campus Plan, improving the high school for all Santa Monica students. This could include the purchase of the Civic Auditorium, the scene of the epochal “T.A.M.I.” (Teenage Awards Music International) show of 1964, and the live radio broadcast of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust show, later captured on the famed bootleg (now officially released) “Live Santa Monica ’72,” widely credited as the launchpad for the rock star’s American popularity. Still, renovation would require yet another bond by SM voters to modernize the building if a feasibility study suggests the 1958 site can be modernized with its landmarked features preserved while still meeting school needs.

The Santa Monica City Council has been looking into redeveloping the site for years and once considered redeveloping the site into an entertainment/arts complex but abandoned that idea some years back. Adding to the difficulties of seismic upgrades and reconstruction is that the Coastal Commission would have to approve “any construction and repurpose of the building,” according to SMMUSD staff. Also adding to the complications of acquiring the prime real estate is another potential bidder for the property. 

Community Corporation of Santa Monica (CCSM), a nonprofit organization that develops, restores and manages affordable housing for low-income and modest-means tenants has also expressed interest in buying the municipal property. CCSM is the city’s largest affordable housing developer. It’s built more than 700 units in Santa Monica since 1980. CCSM says it plans to partner on its proposed housing with the Committee for Racial Justice to address the area’s history. That part of town once known as the Belmar Triangle used to be home to a large Black population that was displaced during construction of Interstate 10 and the SM Civic Auditorium more than 60 years ago.