Quick Take:

With Kaiser Permanente Arena extended beyond its intended lifespan, the Santa Cruz Warriors want a multipurpose downtown venue that could host events beyond basketball year-round, with a capacity of 3,000-4,000. That would be an alluring upgrade from the Civic Auditorium in terms of attracting big-name musical acts and speakers, but whether a new venue would suit mainstay Civic tenants like the Santa Cruz Symphony is a concern — and in any case, it’s no slam dunk that a bigger new venue would be filled regularly, either.

Eleven years after the quickie construction of Kaiser Permanente Arena, Santa Cruz is facing the daunting task of replacing that arena — a building always designed to be temporary — with a permanent one.

As part of its 2022 Downtown Plan Expansion, the city is in the preliminary planning stages for the construction of a new permanent home for the Warriors. When, or even if, that happens is still up in the air, though the city council voted unanimously late last month to extend the team’s lease on KP Arena through the fall of 2026.

A crucial component of the debate over a new arena is what becomes of it when the Warriors are not playing basketball. In other words, can or will the new arena be used as a performing arts center?

Warriors president Chris Murphy has said that his vision for a new arena does include a multipurpose facility that could host music concerts and other performance-oriented events, in addition to other athletic events. And recently, Murphy told Lookout that a new arena in Santa Cruz is “still the goal and still a reality.” The Warriors have also told city officials that they want an arena that will host events year-round, including entertainment and arts events.

That vision, of course, leads to another question: Will a new arena serve merely as a replacement for the aging Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, Santa Cruz’s current multiuse performance facility? Or will it be something new in town, ushering in new possibilities for shows and live events?

The Civic has been the go-to performing arts arena in Santa Cruz for more than eight decades. It opened before Pearl Harbor and will be approaching 90 years old by the time any new arena is likely to open. At around 2,000 seats, the Civic remains the largest venue for local or out-of-town promoters to stage concerts, theater events or comedy shows, and hosts about a couple of dozen concerts and ticketed shows a year. Kaiser Permanente Arena itself has a larger seating capacity, at around 2,500, but its made-for-basketball acoustics make it an unrealistic choice for the performing arts. A new arena is likely to have a 3,000-seat capacity or more, and the plan under study now is closer to 4,000 seats.

The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, opened in 1940, has a capacity of around 2,000.
The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, opened in 1940, has a capacity of around 2,000. Credit: Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz

The one performing arts organization in town that uses the Civic regularly throughout the year is the Santa Cruz Symphony, which presents seven concerts a year at the Civic, most of which are also presented at the much smaller Mello Center in Watsonville (with a capacity to hold around 780 people). The Symphony and the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which uses the Civic as its home arena two weekends each August, have over the years invested heavily in improving the acoustics at the Civic. But, said Symphony board president Linda Burroughs, the old downtown auditorium is still less than ideal.

“Still, acoustically, it’s very hollow,” she said. “It’s not as rewarding as going to the Mello, for instance.”

Burroughs said that the Symphony has been in ongoing talks with the Warriors on the viability of the new arena as a concert hall, and she is enthusiastic about the prospect. “I’m in total support of the arena moving forward,” she said. “And if it can be for mixed use like it’s intended to be, it would be outstanding.”

The caveats to that enthusiasm, however, are substantial. The Symphony’s potential move to a new arena would depend on two crucial factors: sound and cost. Will the new arena create a satisfactory acoustic environment to make non-amplified music like a symphony orchestra viable? And will it come in at a rental fee that the Symphony can live with?

“My concern is still very much at the forefront,” said Burroughs, “and that’s whether the arena is going to be able to accomplish the acoustics that would be beneficial for a symphonic orchestra. I’m sure it would be fine for an amplified performance like rock concerts or anything else. But acoustical performances like the symphony are much different in their needs than a rock concert and amplified music.”

As for those amplified music shows — rock, pop, country, etc. — would local or regional concert producers use a new arena? If it were significantly larger than the Civic, maybe.

The neighborhood south of Laurel Street around Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz.
The neighborhood south of Laurel Street around Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Michael Horne of Pulse Productions has been producing shows in Santa Cruz for decades. Horne said that a larger arena might benefit local music fans, but it would attract outside corporate concert companies like Live Nation that rarely bother with Santa Cruz now (Bob Dylan’s 2022 summer show at the Civic was one of the rare Live Nation shows produced locally). Concert booking is heavily dependent on venue capacity, and a 4,000-seat arena would likely attract well-known names who would not consider the Santa Cruz Civic.

“If there were suddenly, say, a 4,000-seat venue in Santa Cruz,” said Horne, “I would pursue different types of acts, maybe larger acts, and I might get an occasional one. But, at that level, we’d be duking it out with the bigger promoters out of the area.”

Horne said that many of the acts that might come to a new downtown arena now perform at the outdoor amphitheater at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga. Among the acts that played the Mountain Winery this summer were Lyle Lovett, Echo & the Bunnymen, Chris Isaak, Jethro Tull, Smokey Robinson and the Beach Boys. But acts of that profile are likely to have “perimeter clauses” in their contracts, which prohibit additional shows or appearances within a certain radius. And that would put a new arena in Santa Cruz in direct competition with the Mountain Winery for name acts.

“Pretty much anything that happens at the Mountain Winery,” said Horne, “can’t happen in Santa Cruz on the same [concert tour] or, oftentimes, within six months.”

DNA, who has presented comedy shows in Santa Cruz for more than a decade, said he’s not against a new arena in Santa Cruz that might bring more high-profile comics to town. But as a promoter, he probably would not be participating.

“I think there’s a problem with comedy at a certain point when [the venue] gets so big that you lose the community,” said DNA. “I wanted to see Adam Sandler in San Jose at the [SAP Center]. But then it was like, I don’t want to see a comedian in an arena. He’s not Bruce Springsteen. I’d rather see him in a smaller venue. There’s something cathartic and unique about comedy. The bigger it is, I think the more problematic it gets.”

KP Arena itself has hosted many non-basketball events over the past decade, though that has largely been limited to non-musical headliners, such as comedian George Lopez and former basketball star and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bookshop Santa Cruz was the host of the Abdul-Jabbar event, and it has brought in several high-profile authors to the arena such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and soccer star Carli Lloyd.

Chorel Centers, who manages the author/speaker series at Bookshop, said that a larger-capacity arena in downtown Santa Cruz could be a boon for local book lovers: “It would definitely be an attraction to help us get higher-profile people. Santa Cruz is getting more on the map for influential speakers and authors, so it’s becoming a destination for folks.”

Downtown Santa Cruz seen from above
As the makeover of downtown Santa Cruz continues, the what, where and when of a new arena are still uncertain. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Another possible wild card? Political events. A larger venue could attract the kind of high-octane political names who are looking for big crowds in election years, such as presidential candidates or political celebrities like Bernie Sanders — or whoever might be carrying his mantle in 2028 and beyond.

Whatever the future holds for a new arena, local promoters and arts organizations do not seem to be souring on the Civic despite its age. “I’m happy with the Civic on the occasional events that I throw there,” said Michael Horne, who has brought Bonnie Raitt to the Civic several times over the years.

Linda Burroughs said that the Santa Cruz Symphony still has the option to remain at the Civic indefinitely, in the event that the new arena never comes to pass or is deemed not appropriate for Symphony concerts. Though, she added, the city must invest in improvements and renovations, especially hand railings for the steep steps in the auditorium.

“It’s a fabulous space,” she said of the Civic, which will host the Symphony’s next concert, “Operas of Seville,” on Saturday, Oct. 21. “I’d love to stay there. It’s so convenient to downtown. People can have a nice dinner somewhere and walk to the Symphony and walk back. It’s safe and people feel good about it.”

As for the Santa Cruz Warriors, even with a new arena in downtown Santa Cruz with a seating capacity over 3,000, the team would still be playing in one of the smallest-capacity venues in the G League, which includes some arenas three or four times that size. The closest neighboring G League arena, Stockton Arena, home of the Stockton Kings, seats 12,000.

Planning for a new arena puts Santa Cruz face-to-face with a sense of its own demographic limitations. Besides the expense of a larger big-city arena, there is little evidence that Santa Cruz could regularly fill such a place, and no guarantee that it would attract the kind of big names that could draw those kinds of crowds.

“Not to put a wet blanket on it,” said Michael Horne, “But I do wonder, when the rubber hits the road as far as what actually happens, will there be a flood of a lot of new major talent filling a larger space in Santa Cruz? I don’t know that there will be.”

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Real-time, up-to-date calendar for everything going on Santa Cruz County

Weekender: Wallace Baine gets you plugged in with what to know about this weekend and beyond

Down The Line: Your planing guide for all the biggest and best shows & gigs in Santa Cruz County

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...