Our housing priorities are clear. But where does a modern downtown Santa Cruz performance venue fit in? Discussions are underway about making the next home of the Warriors exactly that — which could render our old Civic Auditorium obsolete.
Yes, there are quintessentially Santa Cruz ways to risk your life:
You can take a new Costco board out to the lineup at Pleasure Point, or you could attempt to take a left turn off Mission Street in the middle of the afternoon.
Or, if you’re really looking for the kind of jumping-out-of-an-airplane adrenaline rush of laughing in the face of death, you can try to take a bathroom break in the middle of a show at the Civic Auditorium.
You know what I’m talking about — you’ve found your spot somewhere up on the horseshoe-shaped seating area that rings the floor at the Civic. Your heart rate has just returned to normal after your dizzying climb up to your seat. But then, a bit later, nature calls, you’re nowhere close to an intermission, and you have no choice but to negotiate a steep downward incline in the dark with utterly nothing to hold onto, except maybe the shoulder of an aisle-sitting stranger.
The Boardwalk should have such a thrill ride.
We all know that the Civic has its eccentricities — the steep pitch of the seating and absence of handrails, the lack of air conditioning, the undeniable gymnasium-ness of the place. But the Civic, a downtown touchstone since its opening more than 80 years ago, is like an old car. It’s comfortable and familiar. You have a trove of great memories associated with it. You love the old thing. But its charms are of a piece with its shortcomings. You learn to live with them. You fix them when you’re able. Still, 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, obviously the focus is fixed on increasing the inventory of housing, particularly affordable housing. And in that effort, even the downtown branch of the public library system looks to be getting a big new facelift. With blueprints and renderings flying all over the place for this project and that one, and more new buildings going up in Santa Cruz in the next few years than most people can count, we’re left with this question:
Whither the Civic?
Of course, the Civic, built in 1940, isn’t 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 proper 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 go back at least to the 1980s and, unless you know of a Santa Cruz Symphony Hall somewhere that I’m unaware of, they’ve all come to naught. But there is a glimmer on that far horizon, a bit to the southeast, to be exact.
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 designed-to-be-temporary Kaiser Permanente Arena in the area south of Laurel Street. It’s all still in the conceptual stages now — and any new arena will be obviously first and foremost a basketball venue. But it’s possible — even likely — that the new home to the Warriors will also serve as a beautiful new performing-arts venue, rendering the Civic and its Depression-era architectural quirks obsolete.
Any new arena downtown is likely to be built only by the Golden State Warriors, the NBA powerhouse that also owns the G League Santa Cruz team. But the new arena wouldn’t “pencil out” if it were open for only a handful of basketball games each year. To be viable, it needs to be an all-purpose venue, suitable for performances to bring in revenues from both local and out-of-town show producers. The Santa Cruz Symphony, the Civic’s main performing-arts partner, has already engaged in preliminary discussions with the Warriors about being a co-occupant in the new Steph Curry Arena (well, do you have a better idea for a name?). That means a new venue would almost certainly be designed and built to be an acoustically acceptable place to hear anything from Brahms to Beyoncé.
Yes, it would mean that, as is the case with the Civic, the arts would have to adapt to a space designed for sports. Such is the hard-nosed reality in a town without big-city throw-weight behind the fine arts. But if a new hall were designed from the beginning as a hybrid space, with allowances for arts audiences built into it, ideally much of that makeshift vibe that we tolerate at the Civic would be a thing of the past. The problems at the Civic — again, we love you dearly — are not contained only in the stuffy air circulation and the steep steps. The lobby always feels like an elevator at quitting time, and making it to the bathroom and back again at intermission can be an adventure.
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The symphony and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music — the Civic’s other regular, high-profile performing-arts user — are, like most of us, reluctant to slag the Civic. They have, in fact, made the best of performing there, and have each invested a lot in improving and maintaining the sound at the Civic. But both the symphony and the Cabrillo Fest have been quietly — sometimes not so quietly — exploring ideas for something new, something better.
The latest effort for that better something took place shortly before the pandemic, back in 2017-18 when a group calling itself Friends of the Civic proposed a comprehensive renovation to the building, including new safety measures, a bigger lobby, a balcony area for receptions and other amenities. Such ideas were the result of many studies and many renovation designs. Then came COVID and city reductions that amounted to about 15% of the Civic’s budget, which pushed that new effort into a kind of wish-list purgatory, where it still exists.
The performing arts community in Santa Cruz needs this new arena to happen, and it 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 only lip service, and are then pushed to a spot in line behind housing, retail business, even sports. Nobody in the arts would downplay the pressing need for new housing, and the efforts to bring new businesses and commercial activity downtown. Nobody in the arts would resent a new library. But Santa Cruz — a city that, after all, developed an entire community devoted to the arts a decade ago at the Tannery — is supposed to be an arts-oriented town. That we have to shoehorn our finest efforts at performance art into an 80-year-old building that’s best deployed as a roller-derby venue has been something of a civic embarrassment.
The Civic is a wonderful spot. Just walking through its corridors and looking at its press clippings on the walls going back decades reminds us all of Santa Cruz’s rich and evocative history of arts and entertainment. If the new arena comes to pass as the arts community hopes it does, that creates a secondary problem: What to do with the old Civic (a question we’ll tackle when the time comes)? Even just as a museum and artifact of the past, it would be useful to future generations as a reminder that their forebears had to risk their life and limb going to the bathroom in the middle of a Dylan show. And, that there will be one less quintessentially Santa Cruz way to get an adrenaline rush.