Sponsors Agree: Corporate Naming of Local Treasures is Flavortastic

Thursday, 31 Mar 2011, 8:10:00 AM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

Welcome to the Eggo Homestyle Waffles Opinion Column. And along with those toaster-fresh waffles, enjoy a cup of Starbucks’ 100 percent Kona coffee.

And now, back to our content. Or did I lose you already, out of some sort of disgust with product placement and the tendency to convert every single visible surface in modern life into a billboard. If you’re upset with me just wait until you walk past the Windex Foaming Glass Cleaner Auditorium, formerly the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

It seems like only last week I was struggling to find my way to a point of view on our city’s parking situation. I felt my columnist super powers ebbing from the Kryptonite rays of the parking struggle conundrum. But this week there’s something so plainly wrong about the notion of selling corporate naming rights to our Civic Auditorium that my Ultra Tide Powdered Detergent op-ed column just about writes itself!

As reported in the Mirror’s March 18-24 edition, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium has historically been a significant venue for music and events since the 1960s. On March 8, the Nederlander Organization was given the go-ahead to revitalize the Civic Auditorium as an “exclusive presenter/joint venture.” All well and good, as the Civic Center needs new energy and more utilization.

However, desired renovations will require funding and there’s actually been a pitch to look at selling corporate naming rights. Overnight our Civic Auditorium and the echoes of the legendary performers who have appeared there would be drenched in cheese by way of the building becoming one huge dramatically lit billboard in the heart of our city.

One argument put forward in the Council Chamber at City Hall is that the Staples Center has brought new life to downtown Los Angeles despite the building becoming a fixed corporate advertising blimp. Visit that area of downtown Los Angeles at night and you’ll find it impossible to turn your head in any direction and not have your retinas scorched by riotously over-lit advertising. The side of a movie theater bears giant panels hawking Coca Cola so powerfully displayed that it’s a wonder cars don’t drive off the 110 freeway. So yes, adding the word “Staples” to that arena has “revitalized” that section of the city, helping to make it a twenty-first century product carnival in the center of one of America’s most sophisticated cities.

At a council meeting, former Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein was as startled as I was at the naming rights pitch, finding it “entirely offensive” in the way that it represented “commodifying the commons area” that includes City Hall and the Courthouse. Feinstein used the phrase “freaked out” in his reaction, and the notion works on me at about the same level.

This is more than a simple tussle over good versus bad taste. And that’s because modern life compels us to all work together to create a sense of place. Not just here in our own city, but everywhere. Anyone who has traveled from one American city to another can be struck by the sameness of outlying areas even as your cab leaves the airport. Franchise food outlets line up along the highways like plastic Monopoly pieces. Then comes the mall, then more chain stores, there’s the Midas Muffler… and here’s another mall. So hopefully, the soul of a city will be preserved deeper in. And yet one can get to those downtown areas and again be stunned by the sameness. Chain retail, then the “old town” area… and now here’s the Olive Garden. In struggling to make cities “work,” planners have too often yielded to sameness and conformity and neglected to protect history and a sense of place. Imagine one day visiting the Michelin Hydro Edge Tire Spire, formerly the Eiffel Tower.

That Santa Monica would even consider taking something as defining as the Civic Center and gluing advertising to the outside of it suggests that, for a few moments anyhow, we’ve lost the will to live. Do we care so little about the performing arts in our city that we wouldn’t act to ensure that performances don’t occur inside a giant billboard? Have we already conceded that a sense of place has so little value to us that we’re going to use our public buildings to tout consumer goods and get something out of the deal?

Of course billionaire Eli Broad builds good things for the public, and then makes a point of putting his own name on the outside of the structure. It wasn’t that long ago that we were hoping Mr. Broad would build his art museum here in Santa Monica, where we would have happily accepted that commercial for Broad and his legacy on the outside of the building. But that information carries an important cultural message: Patrons with wealth will give back to the cities they live in, and they should. Contrast that to “The Subway Eat Fresh Civic Auditorium.”

While right now the idea of selling naming rights to the Civic Auditorium is being viewed as contingency planning, I don’t feel I’m being premature in stirring up a Miracle Grow groundswell against it. Using my Dell Computer to write that selling Civic Center naming rights is as odious as a stale jar of Vlassic Kosher Dill Snack’mms conforms to my duty as a columnist and hugs the shape of my mission like a Playtex Secrets No Slip No Ride-Up Underwire bra.

Former mayor Feinstein is right when he says “such a notion runs counter to what Santa Monica stands for as a community and as a city.” Let’s kill the naming rights concept now with Raid Max Bug Barrier household spray and toast our good sense with a frosty glass of Miller Genuine Draft 64 calorie beer.

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