Civic Spirit: Will Santa Cruz ever get the performing arts arena it needs and deserves?

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Yes, there are typical Santa Cruz ways to risk your life:

You can bring a new Costco board to the queue at Pleasure Point, or you can try turning left onto Mission Street mid-afternoon.

Or, if you’re really looking for the kind of adrenaline rush that jumps out of a plane laughing in the face of death, you can try taking a bathroom break in the middle of a show at the Civic Auditorium.

You know what I’m talking about – you’ve found your place somewhere on the Civic’s floor-ringing horseshoe-shaped seating area. Your heartbeat has just returned to normal after your dizzying climb to your seat. But then, a little later, nature calls to you, you’re nowhere near an intermission, and you have no choice but to negotiate a steep downhill slope in the dark with absolutely nothing to do. hold you, except maybe the shoulder of a seated aisle stranger.

The boardwalk should have such a thrill ride.

We all know the Civic has its quirks – the steep seat slope and lack of handrails, the lack of air conditioning, the undeniable gymnasium of the place. But the Civic, a downtown touchstone since it opened more than 80 years ago, is like an old car. It’s cozy and familiar. You have a wealth of good memories associated with it. You like the old thing. But its charms are one with its flaws. You learn to live with them. You fix them when you can. Yet, secretly or maybe not so secretly, you really want – you really need – an upgrade.

As we stand on the cusp of potentially huge changes in downtown Santa Cruz, the focus is obviously on increasing housing inventory, especially affordable housing. And in that effort, even the downtown branch of the public library system appears to be getting a facelift. With blueprints and renderings flying everywhere for this project and that one, and more new buildings to be built in Santa Cruz in the next few years than most people can count, we are left with this question:

Where is the Civic going?

Of course, the Civic, built in 1940, is not going anywhere. It will likely remain, if nothing else, a monument to FDR-era public works for years to come. The more pertinent question is, will Santa Cruz ever get the performing arts arena it needs and deserves?

The answer to that could be yes, and before the end of this decade.

Efforts to replace or upgrade the city-owned Civic date back to at least the 1980s, and unless you know of a Santa Cruz Symphony Hall somewhere I don’t, they’ve all failed. But there is a glow on that distant horizon, a little to the southeast, to be exact.

an orchestra performs at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

The city’s downtown expansion plan, announced late last year, includes a proposal for a new permanent arena for the Santa Cruz Warriors to replace the temporary Kaiser Permanente arena in the city. area south of Laurel Street. It’s all still in the design stage – and any new arena will obviously be a basketball venue first and foremost. But it’s possible, if not likely, that the Warriors’ new home will be too serve as a stunning new venue for the performing arts, rendering the Civic and its Depression-era architectural quirks obsolete.

Any new downtown arenas will likely only be built by the Golden State Warriors, the NBA powerhouse that also owns G League team Santa Cruz. But the new arena wouldn’t be “pencil” if it was only open for a handful of basketball games each year. To be viable, it must be a multi-purpose venue, suitable for performances to generate revenue from local and out-of-town show producers. The Santa Cruz Symphony, the Civic’s primary performing arts partner, has already entered into preliminary discussions with the Warriors about co-locating the new Steph Curry Arena (well, do you have any better idea of name ?). This means that a new venue would almost certainly be designed and built to be an acoustically acceptable place to hear anything from Brahms to Beyoncé.

Yes, that would mean that, as is the case with the Civic, the arts would have to fit into a space designed for sport. Such is the unforgiving reality in a city with no big city weight behind the fine arts. But if a new venue were designed from the start as a hybrid space, with allocations for arts audiences, ideally, much of that makeshift vibe we tolerate at the Civic would be a thing of the past. The Civic’s problems – again, we really like you – aren’t contained solely to the stuffy airflow and steep steps. The lobby always feels like an elevator when it’s time to leave, and getting to the bathroom and back at intermission can be an adventure.

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The Symphony Orchestra and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music – the Civic’s other regular, high-profile performing arts user – are, like most of us, reluctant to go after the Civic. In fact, they got the most out of their performance and each invested heavily in improving and maintaining the sound à la Civic. But the symphony and the Cabrillo Fest quietly – sometimes not so quietly – explored ideas for something new, something better.

The last push for that better something came shortly before the pandemic, in 2017-18 when a group calling itself Friends of the Civic proposed a complete renovation of the building, including new security measures, a larger hall, a balcony for receptions and other amenities. Such ideas are the result of many studies and many renovation projects. Then came COVID and the city cuts that were about 15% of the Civic’s budget, which pushed this new effort into a sort of wishlist purgatory, where it still exist.

The performing arts community in Santa Cruz needs this new arena and needs to be a partner in its design. In the unfolding vision of the new Santa Cruz as it emerges, the arts too often get lip service, and are then relegated behind housing, retail and even sports. No one in the arts would downplay the pressing need for new housing and the efforts to bring new businesses and commercial activity downtown. No one in the arts would blame a new library. But Santa Cruz — a city that, after all, developed an entire arts community a decade ago at the Tannery — is meant to be an arts-focused city. The fact that we had to put our best performance art efforts into an 80-year-old building that’s best deployed as a roller derby venue was kind of a civic embarrassment.

The Civic is a wonderful place. Just walking through its halls and looking at its decades-old clippings on the walls reminds us all of Santa Cruz’s rich and evocative arts and entertainment history. If the new arena comes to pass as the art community hopes, it creates a side issue: what to do with the old Civic (a question we’ll get to when the time comes)? Even as a museum and artifact of the past, it would be useful for future generations to remember that their ancestors had to risk their lives and go to the bathroom in the middle of a Dylan performance. And that there will be one less quintessential way in Santa Cruz to get an adrenaline rush.