Around 20 venues ply their trades at the free events, held every first Friday in the NTC Promenade’s Arts and Cultural District, with anywhere from 500 to 800 guests in attendance.
The festival is a good way for the businesses to strut their stuff, of course — but to hear NTC Foundation executive director Alan Ziter tell it, Liberty Station patronage would increase sevenfold except for one crucial element that stunts its growth. If the historic Luce Auditorium were online for performance, he said, “We’d have 500 to 800 people seven nights a week,” and their discoveries wouldn’t be limited to Friday Night Liberty’s vendors.
A renovated Luce is an idea whose time has come, just as it had in 2004, when Ziter assumed his current post. Built in 1941, the former seat of classroom instruction for thousands of Navy recruits at the former Naval Training Center (NTC) has also hosted a few weekend movies and shows headlining wartime luminaries like Bob Hope and Nat “King” Cole. The former NTC San Diego base, where the venue is located, opened in 1916 and was decommissioned and handed over to the city in 1997, with groundbreaking for new development taking place in 2001.
The Luce, on the west side of Truxton Road north of Dewey Road, is 20,000 square feet in area and has 1,800 seats, which at first blush seems more than ample for an anchor performance venue — but several logistical concerns impede renovation. There’s no lobby space; the wall-to-wall seating is too deep, the stage is too small and too high; acoustics are marginal and restrooms are lacking and out of date.
A wave of public hearings and potential tenant input on the facility’s best use have also weighed into the mix, which helped result in a Del Mar firm’s 2008 feasibility study. The research was conducted at a cost of $65,000.
“We concluded that we’d like to accommodate local dance theater and a number of film festivals around the city,” Ziter said, pointing to activities like several ethnic fêtes and the area’s popular 48-Hour Film Project, wherein competing groups write, produce and showcase movies from scratch over two days.
“We’d like three theaters within the existing facility, with 250 to 450 seats for two of them,” he said.
The remaining stage would be a black-box affair, with a customizable seating plan. Mall-type walkways would abut the theaters to the sides with a main lobby in the middle of the floor.
But four and a half years have passed since the feasibility study’s conclusion — and Ziter weighed in when asked if he thought the lag was acceptable.
“Not really,” Ziter said. “You have to remember that 2008 was the start of the Great Recession. When you’re operating 27 buildings [on 28 acres], that becomes problematic. And we also lost the [city] redevelopment agency as a partner.”
On Feb. 1, the San Diego Redevelopment Agency was dissolved, as were all state redevelopment agencies in a move to cut California’s budget deficit. The local unit was an original planner of NTC with developer The Corky McMillin Cos.
And in a private sector pressed for cash, the foundation’s plans for the Luce have suffered drastically.
“This is not like Balboa Park,” Ziter said, “where the city (as park owner) is responsible for maintenance and new projects. The [NTC] Foundation has to raise the money for the auditorium by itself, and the recession slowed things down in terms of donations. Resources are spread thin, and it’s going to cost
$15 million to $18 million to renovate the Luce the way we’ll want it according to the study findings.”
The expected total cost of the renovations at Liberty Station is $100 million.
“Projects this size have a way of [reinventing] themselves,” Ziter said. “Look at the California Center for the Arts [in Escondido], which seems to be turning around now. Look at ECPAC,” the languishing East County Performing Arts Center, which the El Cajon City Council has taken another look at and may be edging toward renovating after many years of heated debate on its future.
And look at Luce Auditorium, which temporarily has fallen victim to unforeseen political and fiscal circumstances. While Friday Night Liberty is a lively, colorful spectacle for and among community patrons, it’s consigned to a life of its own as a lumbering economy and an administrative detour hold sway over the auditorium’s intermediate future.
For more on the Luce Auditorium and NTC, visit ntclibertystation.com or sandiego.gov/ntc.