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Never-used $22-million children's museum gets new lease on life

December 18, 2012|By Mike Boehm
  • The never-opened Children's Museum near Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace has stood vacant since being completed in 2007. The Los Angeles City Council has cleared the way for the Discovery Science Center of Santa Ana to operate it, opening by March 2015.
The never-opened Children's Museum near Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace… (Los Angeles Times )

The Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, a never-used, $21.8-million white elephant next to Hansen Dam Recreation Center on the city’s northern edge, is back on track to become an attraction and an educational asset.

After more than two years of discussions with operators of the nonprofit Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, the City Council has approved putting an additional $18.1 million into the project, which will enable Discovery to equip the San Fernando Valley site with environmental and other science exhibits and open its doors by March 2015. For now, the new museum is being called Discovery Science Center Los Angeles.

“It took years of very hard work to get here, but today’s progress proves how hard work and refusing to give up on a good idea can improve Los Angeles,” City Councilman Richard Alarcon said Monday in a written announcement of the deal issued by Discovery Science Center.

The 57,000-square-foot museum building in Lake View Terrace was finished in 2007, but the city’s partner in the project, the now-defunct Children’s Museum of Los Angeles, ran into financial difficulties and couldn’t keep its end of the bargain -- raising the money to equip and operate the site.

Discovery Science Center opened in Santa Ana in 1998; its most recent public tax returns show annual expenses of about $9 million to $10 million. The Los Angeles sister venue is projected to have a $5.3-million annual budget to start.

In addition to approving the money for the science center on Friday, the City Council authorized the Department of Recreation and Parks to reach a 30-year lease agreement with Discovery. The nonprofit museum will pay $1 a year to use the building and will be responsible for all operating costs after the initial subsidy.

The lease says the museum "shall be operated as a first-class center for youth and their famiies, with an emphasis on recreation and environmental science."

Dan Nasitka, Discovery spokesman, said plans call for opening in December 2014, ahead of the city's deadline, after two years of planning and building exhibits, recruiting a staff and launching a fundraising operation separate from the one in Santa Ana. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Los Angeles site’s governing board will share members with the one in Santa Ana.

Nasitka said that Discovery Science Center Los Angeles is “a working title, but it’s expected to change.”

One possibility, if a major donor steps forward, is to give naming rights in return for a large gift. But Nasitka said that “just from a branding and marketing standpoint, L.A. is a different market than Orange County,” so a different name is likely.

The alternative to the agreement between the city and Discovery, if the site were to have remained unused past 2014, was for the city gradually to pay back an estimated $16.2 million in public funds provided for construction on the condition that the building would, in fact, become a museum. The first IOU, starting in 2015, would have been $7.5 million to the state of California; others are held by the federal government and a restricted city bond coffer.

Alarcon and other officials who had pushed for the children’s museum had counseled patience as it sat vacant for five years. They compared it to Walt Disney Concert Hall, which had been a civic embarrassment before finally opening to acclaim in 2003.

The concert hall project, which was spearheaded by Los Angeles County, came to a standstill for years during the 1990s when fundraising fell far short of the nearly $300 million it eventually took to turn architect Frank Gehry’s vision into a reality.

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