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Civic Auditorium Back on Closed Session Agenda

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By Jorge Casuso

July 21, 2023 -- After causing an uproar at this week's City Council meeting, closed door negotiations with the School District and Community Corporation to purchase Santa Monica's historic Civic Auditorium will take place on Tuesday.

The item was added to the upcoming closed session agenda on Friday, three days after angry supporters of the iconic 1950s building lined up to denounce the item before it was postponed.

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium
The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium hosted the Acedemy Awards from 1961 to 1968. (Courtesy of Santa Monica Image Archives)

On Friday, City Attorney Doug Sloan responded to allegations the City had violated the State's open meeting act by holding the negotiations in closed session.

"We follow the Brown Act by first having an open session, allowing the public to comment on closed session items, then the clerk announces the closed session items," Sloan wrote in response to a letter from a local activist.

"All of the details of the property and negotiating parties are listed in the agenda titles," Sloan wrote.

"All real estate sales or long term leases must go through the Surplus Land Act process, which began last fall for the Civic, with a public approval of initiating the process."

The appearance of the closed session item this month caught supporters by surprise after the Council's 6 to 0 vote last October to declare the Civic Auditorium property as surplus land went virtually unnoticed.

By the time City staff made its presentation at the October 11 meeting, the audience had dwindled and there were no speakers on the item.

"The crowd is thinning considerably," said then Mayor Sue Himmelrich when the item was called shortly after 10 p.m. "We're down to one, two" members of the public.

After a 10-minute power-point presentation that included the Apple property and the old Sears automotive parking lot, the Council asked staff a few questions about the disposition of surplus land.

They included whether the declaration of a property was a first step in selling it, whether the City would actively seek offers and how affordable housing could work with the sprawling low-slung auditorium on the three-acre Civic Center site.

Economic Development Director Jennifer Taylor told the Council that a sample copy of the City's Notice of Availability (NOA) sent to qualified parties would indicate the City's priorities for the Civic Auditorium site.

"The City is not interested in selling the property," Taylor said. "The City's desire is to work in public-private partnership to restore the use."

Councilmember Gleam Davis, who is now Mayor, clarified that the notice the City would issue "does not preclude other uses, including affordable housing."

Sloan weighed in on the possibility that the auditorium that once hosted the Oscars and legendary rock concerts would become an affordable housing development.

"Just because we have to offer it for that purpose doesn't mean we have to accept any offer even if there were one," he said.

While previous efforts to resurrect the seismically compromised Civic Auditorium have failed -- especially after the City lost some $20 million a year in redevelopment funds -- doesn't mean there won't be any interested parties, Taylor said.

"Times have changed," she said. "It's kind of a diamond in the rough."

Last October's 20-minute hearing ended with a unanimous vote to adopt a resolution declaring the three City-owned properties as "surplus land" under the State's Surplus Land Act (SLA).

According to staff, for properties declared as surplus land, "local agencies must follow a statutory noticing and negotiation period with certain designated entities, including eligible housing sponsors defined by the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

"A Notice of Availability (NOA) is sent to the Eligible that have registered with the State for specified uses, including affordable housing, parks and recreation, and schools."

Those interested in buying or leasing the surplus land must notify the City within 60 days of the notice being sent, staff wrote.

Only the School District and Community Corporation, Santa Monica's biggest affordable housing provider, submitted proposals by the deadline, staff said.

Sloan outlined the next steps in his letter to activist Olga Zurawska.

"After receiving proposals from potential buyers or lessees, the Council may meet in closed session to consider them and provide direction to our negotiator," Sloan wrote.

"Any final deal would have to be approved in open session."

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