To Ellen Primack, executive director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium renovations represent a long overdue dream. A crowd of around 20 gathered at the auditorium steps on June 7 to express support for the renovations, pointing to its lack of handicap accommodations and air conditioning, and its generally outdated and under-utilized state. It was, after all, built in 1939.
“From a Cabrillo Festival standpoint, the facility is not serving our elders,” Primack says. “The seating is becoming a deterrent to cultural participation, and we are not the only ones. People will make choices; they choose between beautiful facilities over the hill and coming here, so we want to make sure that we have that point to bring them here.”
In the last nearly 80 years, the Civic Auditorium has hosted the Miss California Pageant and countless Santa Cruz Follies shows and high school graduations. It’s also home to the annual Martin Luther King Convocation, and, over the years, it’s brought in Bob Dylan, the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, and the Pixies, among many others. The hall was primarily built for sports, as evidenced by the court-facing seating and gymnasium flooring.
But with the construction of the temporary Kaiser Permanente Arena, those sports events have, for the most part, found a newer home. Though the auditorium draws more than 85,000 people annually, it lacks the allure and functionality to compete with other venues, and it can be a difficult selling point for Santa Cruz, particularly when trying to attract bigger-name speakers and performers.
“This building is intended to present the best of Santa Cruz’s past, present and future. Today we are lucky to have the highest quality performances right here, but the facility is letting down the performers and guests,” says Santa Cruz Mayor David Terrazas. “The Civic is not living up to its potential currently, we need to do more to ensure the safety of visitors and performers and we have a ways to go to catch up to today’s standards for comfort and amenities.”
A new group, Friends of the Civic Auditorium, has formed to support the renovations. Their goal is to raise awareness and funding.
Since the foundation of the auditorium is structurally sound, Primack says the renovations will focus primarily on modernization. The Civic Leadership Team first formed in 2012, and eventually partnered with ELS Architecture and Urban Design. Together they came up with a plan that includes retractable seating for around 1,700 audience members (which is actually a downsize from the current 2,000-seat capacity), an open rooftop balcony, elevators and second-floor entrances. They’re also looking to update the lighting and technical equipment, while expanding the lobby and concessions bar. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation sponsored the surveys and business planning studies, as well as the current outreach efforts. Although Arts Council Santa Cruz County is the group’s current fiscal sponsor, no one has yet to contribute any funding to the renovations. The group is looking to raise an additional $20 million to implement the proposed renovations.
“The biggest obstacles are resources, because this is becoming a much more immediate and urgent need,” Primack says. “We need to educate the public about the immediacy of it in the context of all of the other major needs of our community.”
Looking ahead, the group imagines paying the bill will require both private investment and public funding, including grant applications. They are hoping to start a movement, and potentially have a ballot measure put forth by the city of Santa Cruz, though Primack says they aren’t sure about the specifics. Santa Cruz’s quarter-cent sales tax just passed earlier this month to preserve existing programs, but in recent years, city leaders have floated the idea of a future ballot measure to fund the Civic and other projects, including the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf and a possible new basketball arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
Right now, though, it’s the auditorium that’s in the spotlight.
“It really starts with public education, outreach and advocacy,” Primack says. “Ideally this vision is broadcast to anyone who steps in the building.”
For more information, visit friendsofthecivic.org.