Might Culver Ice Arena Get a Reprieve? New Document Adds Unexpected Twist

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Culver Ice Arena is due to close on February 2nd, because the current operator cannot pay an almost doubled rent.

But there has been such a public outcry at the loss of the rink that the Culver City Council has looked into ways to save it and this week staffers unearthed a document that might affect the transition. The document — a Use Variance granted in 1960 — reveals that the new lessees, Planet Granite, will be required to apply for a zoning change in order to use the site for the purpose it wants (rock climbing, fitness and yoga). This would involve going before the Planning Commission, the City Council and undergoing an environmental review under CEQA.

City Manager John Nachbar told DnA this involves a significant discretionary approval process. It is one that some city insiders say might further complicate  a process already thorny due to the intensity of public support for the rink. But when asked if this might mean the rink might be saved, Nachbar said, “I’m always very careful not to predict the future.”

Read the following for more on why the rink’s closure has caused such an outcry and the status of efforts to save it.

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When owners of the land on which the Culver Ice Arena sits raised the rent and found a new lessee, it looked to many as if this was a done deal, a sad loss for skaters but an inevitable consequence of changing real estate values on the Westside.

As it turned out, past and present users were not ready to lose their rink and have mounted a campaign that has brought such pressure to bear on council members that deeper investigation has produced a possible stalling of the process.

According to Councilman Micheal O’Leary, around 20,000 people have participated in a grassroots campaign of petitions, handwritten letters, presentations at meetings and social networking. O’Leary says he has never experienced anything in his time of service that reached this level of public engagement (a fight over declawing cats apparently came the nearest.)

Why Do People Care?

This arena is, as Culver City resident Cary Anderson told DnA, “an icon. .  a building and a business,” and part of the heritage and fabric of Culver City.

To some it holds memories of past experiences there, and pride in its storied history of use by famous skaters like Tai Babilonia, Scott Hamilton, Michelle Kwan and Wayne Gretzky. To others, it’s a remaining source of identity with Culver City as so many others identifiable places disappear — from Ships Coffee Shop to a drive-in movie theater and a bowling alley.

To many, it is also a vital amenity, right now. Thousands of people use the rink each week, ice-skaters and hockey players, amateurs and professionals, male and female, young and old of every ethnicity and economic level, and residents of Culver City and surrounding cities.

Crowd lined up for ice rinkEven more importantly in terms of its role as social glue, it is located near three public schools and serves kids from each.

Finally, while it is not an exceptional midcentury building, architecturally it is a charming “time capsule” (Anderson’s words) from the early 1960s, with its sparkly marquee, Sweetheart of the Ice statue (above) and unchanged, wide-span structure.

While some deem the place rundown (and certainly many rink experts believe it needs a costly upgrade) it is also the lack of change that gives the place its character. One blogger called it the “real-est” place on the West Side.

In all these ways, the arena has forged a tight bond with its community near and far.

Now the rink is closing because the landowner is doubling the rent and has signed a new lease with Planet Granite, a rock climbing and fitness center with three locations in the Bay Area. This is a company that also touts its strong connections with the “community” (explained by CEO Renee DeAngelis, shown below in action, on this DnA).

reneeAnd in an effort to reach out to supporters of the rink, Planet Granite’s PR James Lee took the stage at a City Council meeting held this past Monday.

In front of rows of people bearing pro-rink tees or placards in a standing room-only crowd, he gave a 20-minute presentation in which he reiterated the company’s commitment to moving ahead with their plans to decommission the rink following closure this weekend, and to take over the lease in June. He acknowledged the community’s anguish but asked what could they do “besides save the rink?”

“Saving the rink” is exactly what people were hoping they would do, even as everyone understands that this is a private deal and that “saving the rink” involves great costs that were not in the PG business plan (but might, many ask, surely produce great dividends, through creating a unique rock-plus-rink facility that could attract every member of a family).

Culver City Council meetingCouncilman Micheal O’Leary, who has been pursuing a variety of avenues to save the rink, told DnA that he came to the meeting Monday hoping that Planet Granite would pull off “the greatest PR coup in history, by announcing they would save the rink and win over 20,000 people and the city council.”

Instead, he says he was troubled to find that Planet Granite stuck to their guns, with “platitudes” about community and no offer of any plan that might help sustain the current one.

An 11th Hour Reprieve?

The clock is ticking down to the rink’s closure this weekend but Councilman O’Leary believes that there is still hope and the new finding by the city just may give reason for a change of course.

Having been directed by the city council to evaluate information relating to the proposed change of use from rink to rock climbing facility, city staff dug deep and found the document dating back to 1960; today they issued a press release stating that discretionary approvals for a zoning change will be required by Planite Granite. The company would have to determine if it wants to seek such approval, a process that might be complicated by the intensity of public support for the rink.

Here is City Manager John Nachbar’s statement:

“The City of Culver City has been evaluating information relating to the proposed change of use by Planet Granite of the Culver City Ice Arena.  At the urging of the City Council, city staff continued its comprehensive, top to bottom records search regarding the Culver City Ice Arena property.  As a result of the effort, late Monday evening the search disclosed the original document in an archival file that authorized the current use of the property for an ice rink and parking.   

That document is a Use Variance granted in 1960, which permitted the ice rink and related parking to extend onto residentially zoned property.    The Use Variance is expressly limited to the ice rink use, and does not allow other commercial uses, without further City approvals. 

Therefore, given Planet Granite’s plans to utilize the existing ice rink building and surface parking for a new use, a discretionary approval process would be required.  Specifically, a zone change would be needed in order to accommodate the proposed use.   A zone change would require review and recommendation by the Planning Commission and ultimate approval by the City Council at a public hearing.  Since the zone change is a discretionary approval, it is also subject to environmental review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act.”

Beware of Wishful Thinking

This process, including the CEQA review, could take a minimum of six months. If it were to deter Planet Granite from pursuing their project on this site, city sources say this does not necessarily mean the current operator would be able to stay, especially as this operator appears committed to closing this weekend. But it could open doors for another rink operator to step in. It has been reported that the L.A. Kings were the second bidder on the new lease.

A city insider adds that unless a last minute financial benefactor of ice skating steps in that is able to work with the landowner and Planet Granite for a temporary ice skating use until the zoning gets sorted out, it does not look like there will be ice skating after Sunday and urges people against “wishful thinking.”

Meanwhile some other strategies to save the rink have been pursued:

CC Ice Rink, Final Day Sign1) Historic designation. This would designate the building a historic landmark and while it would not preserve the current use of the building, just its shell, it would mean that new users would have to do their buildout within the existing structure.

2) Site sharing. Supporters are asking that Planet Granite share the site or to somehow accommodate the rink into their offerings. At the Council meeting Monday night, Sol Blumenfeld, community development director for Culver City, laid out the logistical and financial challenges to this concept, mainly having to do with parking.

If combined, the facilities would need many more parking spaces than would be available on the site, so a parking structure would have to be built, costing millions dollars, a prohibitive amount for both Planet Granite and the City. Still, some councilmembers are still looking into the viability of this option. DeAngelis of Planet Granite told DnA they had looked into this option but found it was not financially viable.

Blumenfeld remarked that when Culver City had a redevelopment agency it might have been possible for the city to provide public support, a point also made by Councilman Andrew Weissman on DnA. The redevelopment agency was closed down three years ago along with other redevelopment agencies statewide.

What Next? 

The rink is scheduled to close on Feb 2 and then Planet Granite is expected to perform soil tests. After February 15, it is scheduled to embark on decommissioning the rink. Rink supporters had floated the notion that soil tests might unearth environmental hazards, resulting from melting down ice that is full of chemicals.

Experts in rink construction, and the Culver City fire department, say however that this is unlikely to be a problem if the arena is decommissioned according to standard practice. The City announced today the steps it is taking to ensure the public health and safety when the ice rink closes.

But the new findings may stall the process. When asked if arena supporters might hope their rink will be saved, City Manager John Nachbar said simply, “I’m always very careful not to predict the future.”

Why the Culver Ice Arena Matters

In the New York Times today Michael Kimmelman wrote a fascinating analysis of a McDonalds in Queens, New York, that has pitted elderly Korean customers against management that says the seniors are spending too long there hanging out with their friends. Kimmelman explored how this Mickey D’s eatery happens to be located in a place that neatly serves an aging population that cannot travel far and is simply in need of a comfy spot to sit and chat with friends.

What he is talking about more broadly is our physical environment and how it makes, or breaks, community bonds.

It is for these reasons that the Culver Ice Arena matters. In its 50 years it has become source of community strength in Culver City. It has withstood changes in technology and society over the last five decades that have affected how people use their leisure time and form communities. Such bonds are fragile, sometimes irreplaceable, and, as one DnA listener wrote me, one breaks them at one’s peril.

Lots of people on ice