There was cheering, applause, even a monologue from Macbeth — “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more” — when San Juan Capistrano chose a developer’s vision for a prime downtown parcel in 2017.
“Frontier Real Estate Investments is committed to preserving and enhancing the arts community in San Juan Capistrano by developing a dynamic Performing Arts venue in the Downtown District for artists and patrons to enjoy,” says a presentation to city officials some five years ago.
The first-class facility — on the property where the Camino Real Playhouse and a parking lot stand — would provide “robust performing and fine arts programming” amid fine full-service restaurants, retail shops that complement the arts, creative office space and parking.
The first blush of vision is one thing. Reality is another.
Exclusive negotiations over the property began. There were meetings. Feedback. Changes. The two-story underground parking structure originally envisioned was a problem: There were water table issues. Some folks said they wouldn’t feel safe there at night. The logistics of squeezing a 200-plus-seat theater onto the site proved challenging.
When the city finally approved the sale of the property in November, concept art for the project looked quite different. It had 27,000 square feet of office and business space; a four-story above-ground parking structure; and no performing arts center.
“That went out the window,” said Mark Nielsen, a former city councilmember who was critical from the start. “We ultimately end up with what I had anticipated — a multi-use retail center with parking, and no inclusion of anything related to a performing arts venue.”
But here we invoke the score of “Hamilton”: Just you wait, says developer Dan Almquist.
“I subscribe to the cowboy ethic. I’m a man of my word,” Almquist said. “I live in this town and it means a great deal to me personally. I’ve put a tremendous amount of work into this project, and it’s important to me to follow through.”
Architectural and civil engineering drawings are complete for an even grander space than originally envisioned: A 375-seat performing arts center with a 125-seat black box that would “further elevate the downtown” and host concerts, dance, theater et al.
On July 11, the new non-profit San Juan Capistrano Performing Arts Center received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, allowing donors to deduct contributions on their tax returns.
An ambitious capital campaign to raise some $40 million to build it will launch soon, and discussions are underway with the city over where, exactly, to put it.
It’ll be downtown, perhaps on some underutilized city land. The nonprofit has been working with the architects who designed Chapman University’s Musco Center for the Arts, and Almquist expects to have a formal proposal to the city in coming months.
“It’s a unique situation,” he said. “We own multiple properties in the downtown, and we’re looking at it more holistically rather than trying to jam it all on one site. It’s admittedly a little ambitious, but awesome.”
A 375-seat performing arts center could fill a unique niche in Orange County’s cultural landscape, he said. Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall, which hosts high-profile touring shows, seats eight times more people, at 3,000. Professional theaters like South Coast Repertory and the Laguna Playhouse generally don’t host traveling performances such as concerts.
“There’s a need for a more intimate venue, and that fits really well with San Juan,” he said. “It presents an opportunity to do a variety of arts offerings, and maybe not quite as much pressure to fill a couple thousand seats.”
Why, exactly, is all this happening?
Think “elimination of redevelopment agencies.” Stay with us here!
Once upon a time, cities were allowed to declare areas “blighted” and then keep more tax revenue (rather than sending it on to other agencies like schools, etc.). This extra money was supposed to be invested in eliminating said blight.
But “blight” is a squishy term. There were abuses, of which the exclusive seaside city of Coronado was the poster child: Its redevelopment area covered every privately owned parcel, including multimillion-dollar beachfront homes.
So, after much fighting, the state dissolved redevelopment agencies. Poof. Properties that still belonged to them — such as the Playhouse property — had to be sold to get them back on the regular tax rolls. San Juan Capistrano’s city council authorized the sale of the playhouse property for $1.33 million, and also sold Almquist’s company the adjacent parking lot property for $1.3 million.
This will require the Camino Real Playhouse, which has been in the former Pacific Bell building for decades, to find a new home. That’s proceeding on a separate track.
City officials tell critics that the state’s rules forced them to act before the new year because, if they didn’t, the Playhouse property could have become low-income housing. The city wants affordable housing, Mayor Pro Tem Sergio Farias said, but probably not right there, at the entrance to downtown, across from an upscale hotel and a stone’s throw from the historic Mission that pulls in tourists from near and far.
Councilmembers are confident that the vision will come to fruition.
“Eventually, San Juan Capistrano will see a performing arts center,” said Mayor Howard Hart.
“It’s encouraging news,” said Councilmember John Taylor. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but my sincere hope is that the performing arts center can be built and that the Camino Real playhouse can also remain in existence.”
“When you look at the Segerstrom Center, what it takes is a lot of donors and money,” said Farias.
Critic Nielsen hopes they are right. The independent project is “ethereal” right now, he said, and he maintains that the city could have sold the Playhouse property without selling the parking lot property. He feels an opportunity may have been missed.
“There were other offers that would have preserved a performing arts center of some sort there, but those were refused,” Nielsen said. “It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more insistence on making it a part of any development project. A performing arts center can be a great addition to a central downtown like San Juan’s, where you can walk to everything.
“There’s always an opportunity for something to happen, like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said. “I’ve not seen anything definitive at this point, but certainly would encourage the parties involved to seek a way of bringing a performing arts venue to the downtown.”
That’s exactly what Almquist intends to do.
“This is my first time doing a big capital campaign,” he said with a blend of nervousness and giddiness. “It’s really exciting.”
So prepare, folks, to open your wallets. As it may take some time to raise $40 million in a small city like San Juan Capistrano, we turn to Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” for wisdom:
“He that will have a cake out of the wheat must tarry the grinding.”
Source: Orange County Register
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