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Los Angeles children's museum is back on track

Los Angeles City Council approves $18.1 million for the project, enabling Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana to equip a site in the San Fernando Valley.

December 19, 2012|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • The Children's Museum has been never been used.
The Children's Museum has been never been used. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)

A never-used, $21.8-million children's museum the city built next to Hansen Dam Recreation Center on Los Angeles' northern edge is back on track to become an attraction and an educational asset after years as a municipal white elephant.

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 57,000-square foot San Fernando Valley site with environmental and other science exhibits.

It's expected to open in December 2014. For now, the new museum is being called Discovery Science Center Los Angeles.

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The city built the museum in 2007, but it remained vacant because its now-defunct former partner, the Children's Museum of Los Angeles, which had operated a smaller downtown site, failed to raise the money to install exhibits and run it.

The deal saves the city from losing $16.2 million — the amount it would need to pay back to construction funders, including the state and federal government, if a museum fails to open by a March 2015 deadline.

"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 in a written announcement of the deal issued by Discovery Science Center.

Discovery Science Center opened in Santa Ana in 1998; its annual budgets have grown from about $3 million to the current $12 million, said center President Joe Adams. The Los Angeles sister venue is projected to have a $5.3-million annual budget to start.

Besides 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.

Now that the city's share is approved, Adams said the first task will be to cultivate donors and recruit a volunteer board that will oversee the museum in an arrangement that will also give Discovery officials in Santa Ana a say.

It's clear, he said, that the Los Angeles site's board should have its own strong identity. "It has to be Los Angeles names that people know, and who are invested in making science education grow in the Valley."

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The Los Angeles Discovery museum will duplicate some features from Santa Ana, including Eco Challenge, an exhibit hall set up like a grocery store that allows museum-goers to learn about the science and environmental implications of everyday products.

A hall called Making the Grade will dovetail with the school science curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade, serving a different grade level each month by bringing students to the museum.

In Orange County, Adams said, the schools program is free for about a tenth of the 220,000 students it reaches each year, but more affluent school districts pay a share of the cost. In Los Angeles, he said, the goal is to have all costs covered by donors.

One L.A.-specific exhibit will be a simulated helicopter flight over the city that brings home the science behind environmental pollution.

The Discovery center in the Valley will be less than 30 road miles from the California Science Center in Exposition Park, where substantial state funding allows for free general admission.

Adams said that the Santa Ana Discovery museum, which charges admission of $12.95 to $14.95 and is 34 road miles from the California Science Center, nevertheless gets about 25% of its attendance from Los Angeles County. "We think the programming we're bringing to the Valley is different," he said, and will attract its own audience, even with an admission charge.

Discovery spokesman Dan Nasitka said that Discovery Science Center Los Angeles is "a working title, but it's expected to change." Adams said that naming rights could go to a donor who makes a major endowment gift, but "the name Discovery is going to be in there because it carries our brand."

Alarcon and other officials who had pushed for the original children's museum plan 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.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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