CERRITOS — The promise of high drama has returned to City Hall.
The plot focuses on a plan to build either a modest community center or a major performing arts complex in concert with the Towne Center development. While private firms have been hired to design and build a luxury hotel, office buildings and a shopping mall on the 125-acre Towne Center site, the city will build the arts facility.
But the eventual shape, size and cost of that center are the missing elements in this script and have become the topic of considerable debate.
At issue is whether Cerritos should jump into the already crowded--and economically unpredictable--Southern California entertainment business or simply erect a community center that would cater to local drama productions, recitals and graduations.
In the Southeast-Long Beach area alone, there are two theaters now operating, the 3,141-seat Terrace Theater in Long Beach and the 1,300-seat La Mirada Civic Theater.
And a third performing arts center, an $8-million, two-theater complex, is nearing construction at Whittier College.
On opposite sides of the Cerritos issue are two of the city's leading men, City Manager Gaylord F. Knapp and Mayor Don Knabe.
Knapp wants a mid-size facility, one that would accommodate graduations, dances and community music groups as well as ethnic festivals, touring dance troupes and top-name entertainers. He envisions a gleaming facility with an estimated cost of about $17 million that would seat up to 1,800 people as well as live up to an agreement the city has with one of the Towne Center developers to build a community theater. Knapp also pitches another, more altruistic reason for his plan to build what theater consultants call a "festivity hall" with a flexible seating arrangement.
"(We) want to fill what we perceive as a big void in the community and that's cultural," he told the council recently.
But the mayor said he is not interested in a performing arts center, especially one that might force the city to compete with other Southern California cultural complexes.
"What this city needs," Knabe said, "is a community center. . . . I'm not sure it's appropriate to spend $17 million on a building to hold high school graduations."
The supporting actors in this story are divided over what type of facility to build.
Councilwoman Diana S. Needham supports Knapp, saying that an 1,800-seat facility would give the city flexibility in staging a range of events.
But Councilwoman Ann B. Joynt, who throughout her recent council campaign questioned the scope and appropriateness of the $225-million Towne Center project for a city the size of Cerritos, said she fears that the needs of residents might be overlooked in the push to build something more than a community center.
Joynt said that if she wants to see a play and spend "$32 a seat, I'll drive to L. A., or better yet, Costa Mesa to the South Coast Repertory Theater. . . . I'm not sure that's the kind of facility we need in this city."
Councilman Daniel K. Wong agreed with Joynt, saying, "I don't think the city should go into the theater business." But he stopped short of opposing Knapp's festivity hall plan. Wong said he would favor the larger auditorium if the seating were flexible.
One such theater the city has studied, Knapp said, is the Derngate in Northampton, England, where blocks of seats are on rollers and can be rearranged or even removed. Seating capacity ranges from 650 to 1,800.
The fifth council member, Barry A. Rabbitt, said he favors building a community center over an arts complex. "The priority must be on a facility that will provide local services first," Rabbitt said.
At its Aug. 21 meeting, the council is expected to decide what route to take. Knapp had hoped the council would resolve the issue last week, but the decision was postponed to allow the Towne Center hotel developer, Transpacific Development Co., a chance to comment on the city manager's plan.
About 8.8 acres of the Towne Center site have been set aside for the theater. It will be built near the intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and 183rd Street next to the 400-room hotel that Transpacific is building, said Kurt Swanson, the city's director of human affairs.
Debate over the Cerritos performing arts center is a revival of sorts.
Three years ago, the council considered building a major performing arts theater that would cater to large-scale, Broadway-type productions. But in the end, the council tentatively opted for a smaller, 600- to 750-seat theater for local drama productions, chamber concerts and music festivals. But the project was put on hold when the Towne Center developer at the time was fired.
In March, the council reached an agreement with Transpacific to build the Towne Center hotel and office buildings. As part of the deal, the city agreed to build a "community theater" on the site, known as the Golden Triangle, across from City Hall on Bloomfield Avenue.