CERRITOS — Even while they speak glowingly of the innovative design of the planned Community Arts Center, City Council members remain divided over whether the $23-million building is really what this city needs.
Approved last fall as one of the major pieces of the Towne Center development project, the 1,800-seat complex was the council's answer to years of complaints that Cerritos lacks a place to hold community events, both large and small.
But after reviewing architectural plans for the center last week, some council members contended that the multipurpose hall will be too grand to serve that function.
"I don't think this meets our needs for a community center," said Ann Joynt, the only council member to vote against the project last year. "There is no way you're going to have an Eagle Scout meeting in that facility."
Councilman Don Knabe called the proposed complex "magnificent" but declared: "That's certainly not a community center. . . . This is obviously a theater."
Despite such misgivings, the council unanimously approved one of four design options for the general layout of the complex and requested that its two meeting rooms be enlarged to handle a greater variety of civic gatherings. Councilman Barry Rabbitt was absent.
Indeed, the council has little room to maneuver at this point, since the city's agreement with Towne Center's major developer, Transpacific Development Co. of Torrance, legally binds it to erect a theater complex on the site across from City Hall.
Modeled after a theater in Northampton, England, the 115,000-square-foot arts hall will be unique in this country, according to the project architects, Barton Myers Associates of Los Angeles. "We're sort of breaking new ground," said Craig Webb, the project designer.
In some respects, the building will perform like a machine, allowing seating in the main hall to range from 900 to twice that number, depending on the event. Floors will be mechanically raised and lowered, walls will swing in and out, seats will be arranged on movable tracks and balconies will be closed off when unneeded.
The design is so novel, Webb said, that building codes do not cover the operation of the movable pieces.
"I really do think it's going to be the ultimate in flexibility," City Manager Gaylord Knapp said. Because the interior of the hall can be so easily rearranged, he said, it will be able to host a smorgasbord of community activities as well as concerts, theater productions, ballet and the like.
Although some council members had doubts about the design, Councilwoman Diana Needham said she had none. "I'm really delighted with the facility," she said in an interview. "I think it will serve as a theater and a community center."
At one point in the council discussion, Needham commented that the proposal "fits my perception of a community center." Knabe shot back: "It doesn't fit mine."
He argued that operating costs will be too great for the city to rent space to local groups at a rate they can afford. Instead, he said, the center will have to a pursue steady income by competing with regional theaters for major shows.
Mayor Daniel Wong also wondered how suitable the structure would be for typical community gatherings. "If you make it as elegant as that, as good as that, you can't open it to the Girl Scouts," he said.
Still, Wong later endorsed the complex plans, saying: "We are a first-class city. Why not have a first-class facility?"
Needham said Cerritos would simply have to make it a policy to set rates that local groups could afford. "I don't expect our community center to pay for itself," she said in the interview, pointing out that the city subsidizes a number of community facilities, such as its parks and swimming pool.