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White Elephant or Vital Arts Center? Cerritos Waits

May 08, 1988|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — It will be the most expensive city facility in a community that has never been shy about spending money on parks and buildings. There is already the solar-heated City Hall, the Olympic-sized, indoor, solar-heated municipal swim center, the $6-million library expansion and a wealth of parkland.

In a few years, there will also be the Community Arts Center, an edifice of glass, granite and great ambition. By the latest estimate, it will cost $27 million in city redevelopment funds to build, and will require, at least in the beginning, about $500,000 a year of general-fund money to keep it running. Patterned after an English performing arts hall and designed by respected Los Angeles architect Barton Myers, the center will be the only one of its kind in North America, its creators say.

It will be a high-tech building with not one, but many personalities, beckoned by the push of buttons and the swoosh of air. Walls will advance and retreat, blocks of seating will vanish and reappear, carried by a thin layer of pumped air. One week, concerts could be held for an audience of 900. The next, the main hall could be transformed into an open exhibition space. A few days later, it could become a theater seating 1,800.

Granted council approval last year, the center's design attracts praise and even awe. "My eyes grow wide," said Jerry Willis, who oversees bookings for the three performance halls at Caltech in Pasadena.

But even as the Cerritos project nears construction, questions persist about its ambitious scope: Is such a facility appropriate for a community of 55,000 that isn't home to a single local arts group? Should Cerritos enter the crowded Southern California arts market, the most competitive in the nation outside of New York City? Can the center thrive in such an environment, and if it does, will it do so at the expense of existing theaters?

'Don't Think It Will Work'

"It's beautiful . . . but I don't think we want it or we need it," said Ann Joynt, the project's most vocal critic and the only City Council member to vote against it. "I just don't think it will work."

"I don't know of any other city its size doing this. It's overwhelming," said one member of the Southeast area arts scene who did not want to be identified. "And I don't think they have any idea how much it will eventually cost."

Observed Kevin O'Connor, manager of the nearby Downey Civic Theatre: "There's no great hue and cry in this area that we need a performing arts center. La Mirada (Civic Theatre) fills that bill tremendously. What they don't fill, we fill. . . . I think the ramifications of what's being built need to be seriously explored. Do you really want to build something of that size?"

The city staff and the international consulting firm that helped devise the proposal brush aside such comments, pointing to two marketing surveys conducted in 1983. Shoppers at Los Cerritos Center, a regional shopping mall, were interviewed for one, and a questionnaire was mailed to the city's 15,000 households for the second. Not only were an exceptionally large number of questionnaires returned, but both surveys indicated considerable interest in attending performances at a local arts center.

In a report prepared that same year and updated in 1986, the firm, Theatre Projects Consultants Inc., confidently concluded that there was a demand for a mid-sized, multipurpose hall with flexible seating arrangements and community rooms. Located in the middle of the Los Angeles-Orange County sprawl, the center could offer so-called "second tier" performances unsuitable for the two major halls in the region, the Los Angeles Music Center and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

"I think one will find that there will be a new audience found for this building," said David Staples of Theatre Projects. "I think the bodies are there."

Managers of several area performing halls agree, arguing that new theaters often create their own audiences, rather than stealing from others. Moreover, they say the greater number of halls, the greater number of places a touring company can perform in Southern California, making the region a more inviting place to book.

'The More the Merrier'

"The more the merrier," stressed Michael McSweeney, director of marketing at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.

"Their building--if programmed correctly and if they have the right type of management-- could augment what we're doing," said Gary Sloan, city manager of La Mirada, home of the widely known and highly successful La Mirada Civic Theatre.

Still, Tom Mitze, the theater manager credited with building and retaining La Mirada's popularity, concedes, "I would anticipate (Cerritos) will be competitive and it will affect us. That's obvious, you'd have to have your head in the sand to think otherwise."

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