San Diego Civic Theatre users fear a future without top Broadway shows, ballet and opera

Once a symbol of San Diego’s stature among the country’s elite entertainment cities, the 3,000-seat Civic Theatre at 1110 Third Ave. finds itself at a precarious crossroads as the city looks to offload the land, as well as the blocks around it, and pave the way for a new era in downtown’s civic core.

As architects draw up their plans for what’s possible across the five municipal blocks now up for grabs, the largest performing arts venue of its kind within San Diego County may be erased from the cityscape. If it goes away, so too does the prospect of seeing, within county limits, Broadway productions, world-class ballet and premier opera performances, say theater groups who are sounding the alarm about what’s at stake.

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“There’s no other theater in San Diego that has an orchestra pit or the infrastructure needs or the size for a Nutcracker, for an opera … . And subsequently San Diego would completely lose Broadway,” said Abigail Buell, an executive with nonprofit San Diego Theatres.

The organization operates the venue under a 50-year, mostly rent-free lease agreement with the city that runs through February 2063. The group says that, despite the Civic Theatre’s age and exterior appearance, the facility is alive with activity, hosting 370,000 people across 176 performances in the most recent fiscal year ending June 30. The venue is in use 240 days a year when including prep days and private events.

It’s here where, in late January, little girls dressed as miniature versions of Arendelle princesses Elsa and Anna from Disney’s “Frozen” movie came to see their animated heroes come to life in the theatrical adaption of the hit film, which was staged over a 12-day period.

And they did what little girls do — they belted out the songs.

“No one likes to pay for a ticket to hear somebody sing the songs. But we had absolutely no feedback from (attendees about) all the little kids screeching their hearts out. And it was just really fun to see,” said Vanessa Ybarra Davis, who is the general manager of Broadway San Diego. “That’s probably my favorite part of what we do. Because I genuinely believe that there are people who sit in the audience, and that night, once the curtain goes up … think, that’s what I want to do.”

Attendees arrive for a showing of “Six” the musical at the Civic Theatre on Wednesday, July 5, 2023. The Broadway production is one of many staged each year by Broadway San Diego.

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Broadway San Diego is far and away the Civic Theatre’s largest user. The company is the local arm of the Nederlander Organization, which owns and operates theaters in New York, London, Chicago and Los Angeles. The group manages the San Diego stop for international Broadway tours, booking shows several years in advance. In the most recent fiscal year, Broadway San Diego staged 130 performances at the Civic Theatre, drawing more than 300,000 people.

Memorable moments, like those crystallized in the hearts of young kids during the “Frozen” run, are what Ybarra Davis and many of the theater’s other users — particularly the San Diego Opera and Golden State Ballet, which puts on “The Nutcracker” — say are in jeopardy. The institutions, having artfully danced around the financial obstacles of the pandemic, now face a threat that they believe could suck the cultural soul out of the city.

San Diego Civic Theater and its uses

“We can’t just be a beach town or a (town with the) San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. We are way more than that,” said Raul Salamanca, who founded Golden State Ballet and is the artistic director for the company. “We are a city with a vibrant art scene, with people who want to experience art and want to support it. And by taking a venue away such as the Civic Theatre, it makes it that much more difficult for us to be considered a world-class destination.”

Golden State Ballet, started in 2021 in the wake of another ballet company’s collapse, would fold if the Civic Theatre went away, Salamanca said. That’s because no other theater in town has the stage, wing space, theatrical rigging system or orchestra pit to accommodate a ballet the size of “The Nutcracker,” he said. Without the money-making enterprise, Salamanca won’t have sufficient funds to pay his dancers.

It’s a potential loss that’s hard to quantify.

Golden State Ballet employs 25 full-time, professional dancers and a handful of staff. But there are also ancillary impacts to consider, such as the incremental spending that occurs by patrons before and after shows. And Salamanca would probably leave town, taking with him, his wife and 15-month-old baby, as well as the youth dance school the couple started in 2018 when they first moved to San Diego.

The existential questions date to May, when the city of San Diego published what’s called a “notice of availability” for its Civic Center real estate, kick-starting a solicitation process under California’s Surplus Land Act.

The city is essentially marketing its central downtown real estate for lease or sale to the bidder who can deliver the most residential units deed-restricted for low-income families. The land in question includes the City Administration Building, the Civic Center Plaza office tower, the Golden Hall event center, a public plaza, parking garage, the theater and the empty 101 Ash St. tower.

Most of the complex originated as San Diego’s Community Concourse in the early 1960s, built at a cost of $21 million and designed to be the center of civic pride for an up-and-coming city.

 A view of attendees arriving to a showing of "Six" at the Civic Theatre San Diego

The Civic Theatre has served as the longtime home of the San Diego Opera, Broadway San Diego and “The Nutcracker” ballet.

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Opened Jan. 12, 1965, the Civic Theatre, “sparkles like a diamond in the new City Concourse diadem,” and, “enables San Diego to take its place among the major cultural and entertainment centers of the country,” reported the Evening Tribune at the time.

Today the theater has been roped into Mayor Todd Gloria’s grand plan to remake the blocks, now more a symbol of waste than royalty. The idea is to create space for more low-income housing while also raising funds for an all-new City Hall across the street. The theater has been lumped in for the sake of convenience — the facility shares a wall with the City Administration Building, which will surely be demolished. And its utilities are intertwined with the rest of the buildings, which share a central power plant beneath the public plaza.

“To have the sale of this land so that they can get a new administrative building, I mean, great. But what about us? What about all of the countless people who are employed through the use of this venue?” Salamanca said. “‘I’m really shocked that a city of this size and capacity and reputation would even consider that, would even leave that option on the table for others who are not from here to decide. People who don’t live here are going to make that decision for us.”

The city is encouraging Civic Center bidders to maintain a theater presence, “if possible.” There is no mandate because the cost to renovate or replace the venue — estimated by the operator at $125 million to $500 million — could become the city’s burden.

“The city is not against preserving the theater, and we recognize its value. But that’s a very, very big price tag. And that really becomes the bottom line,” said Jay Goldstone, who is a special adviser to the mayor and is running the solicitation process.

Even without the theater requirement, interest in the five-block complex that includes government office buildings and the theater appears muted.

“It’s quiet,” Goldstone said.

The deadline for bids was extended by the city for an additional 30 days, with demand seemingly curbed by a state requirement to reserve at least 25 percent of planned residential units on surplus land for low-income families.

A marquee displays upcoming shows at the Civic Theatre on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

A marquee displays upcoming shows at the Civic Theatre on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Still, for people like David Bennett, who runs the San Diego Opera, the wait-and-see approach won’t suffice. In his mind, the mayor, City Council members, prospective bidders and even the philanthropic community must not leave up to chance the fate of the theater.

“If we really believe we’re America’s Finest City and that this is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to bring vibrancy downtown, why are we not elevating (the Civic Theatre in importance)?” Bennett said. “There is no city the size of San Diego that doesn’t have a venue like this.”

Founded in 1965, the not-for-profit San Diego Opera typically puts on three performances per year at the Civic Theatre, with shows taking over the venue for a three- to four-week period at a time. While the organization also uses the 1,335-seat Balboa Theatre on occasion, the opera requires the Civic Theatre’s larger orchestra pit and wing space, as well as its additional dressing rooms, for major productions.

The nonprofit, currently in recovery mode from pandemic blows to its business, ended the fiscal year roughly $1.4 million down in box office revenue from its last pre-Covid season.

“I really don’t think we would survive,” Bennett said. “We could try to only produce smaller works, but the backbone of an opera company is producing grand opera and that can’t be produced in a small theater. It just can’t.”

The issue, then, is one of civic responsibility, with the city’s fiduciary duty to taxpayers seeming to outweigh an obligation to prop up the arts. The venue is not a moneymaker for the city, which charges San Diego Theatres just enough rent — or $3,567.15 for the current year — to cover administrative staff time.

Attendees mingle in the salon area of the Civic Theatre before a showing of Six on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

Attendees mingle in the salon area of the Civic Theatre before a showing of “Six” at the Civic Theater on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.

(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Some believe, however, that the scale hasn’t been properly calibrated.

San Diego Theatres points to one indicator, an estimate by the Arts & Economic Prosperity Calculator that attempts to define economic impact using the theater’s total audience size and expenses for the year. According to the calculator, Civic Theatre patrons likely spend more than $20.5 million on event-related goods and activities, with expenditures tied to $13.6 million in take-home pay for local workers. The calculator also estimates that more than $2 million in income tax, sales tax and other related fees is collected by the city and state.

There’s also the practical matter of ensuring that whatever replaces the City Hall complex includes more than just skyscrapers.

“An entertainment venue is a critical component of the redevelopment that’s being proposed. Any kind of a major civic center that hopes to attract a lot of people, and not just be a daytime work location but a real gathering place for the community, has got to have a fairly large-scale entertainment venue,” said Cary Lowe, who is a retired land-use lawyer and planning consultant. “They have to make (the Civic Theatre) a condition of approving any redevelopment plan.”

That’s not going to happen — at least not right now. The conversation could change in a few weeks.

“Should (the city) either not get any proposals or any bona fide proposals on the site, then we can revisit,” Goldstone said, “because we will have a lot more flexibility under the Surplus Land Act.”