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Is a Deluxe Performing Arts Center in the Cards for Mission Viejo?

Updated: Jun 11

Multiple moving parts will keep proposed project in the air for years – but ‘starter theater’ is likeliest stop-gap solution.

The detailed study ranked the CVS on Marguerite Parkway in Village Center as being the most feasible existing structure which could be purchased and renovated and thus repurposed as a 200- to 300-seat studio theater while the city raises funds and lays the groundwork for an all-new 600-seat performing arts center. Courtesy of TheatreDNA and the City of Mission Viejo
 

Aliso Viejo has Soka Performing Arts Center. Irvine has the Irvine Barclay Theatre. And Costa Mesa has the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the largest and perhaps most prestigious performing arts center in Orange County.


Mission Viejo has no such venue, and its more than 91,000 residents, plus those who represent them, have been painfully aware of that fact for some time now.


As a potential project and frequent topic of discussion, the idea of a performing arts center being established and built in the city of Mission Viejo has been floating around for nearly a decade. It gained prominence at the March 28, 2023 city council meeting.


Over more than the past 15 months, it’s become more prominent than ever, being an agenda item at city council meetings since early 2023. That’s when current Mayor Pro Tem and Councilmember Bob Ruesch proposed allocating a portion of budget surplus to fund a study investigating the feasibility of and market for a performing arts theater.


That study fulfills part of a cultural arts master plan approved and recommended by the city council in 2017.


Ruesch told Culture OC that Mission Viejo “is a sports-centric community but also a cultural community big on the cultural arts.” He cited the Potocki Center for the Arts, which opened in 2018 and where residents can “practice crafting painting and ceramics,” and the city’s hosting a free annual outdoor Pacific Symphony concert as examples of the city’s deep cultural arts roots.


“It’s a great city with a myriad of cultural arts programs, but the one thing we don’t have is a true theater. We do have little stages with terrible audio, but nothing that would truly be able to give any kind of cultural presentation that Mission Viejo offers in everything else we do.”


Ruesch said the idea for the city to create, design and build its own performing arts center was floated at least a decade ago, “but no councilmember was willing to take it on” – so he proposed it when he became District 1 councilman early last year.


A master plan and a massive study

The master plan devised and drawn up by the city in 2017 identified the process of revitalizing and enriching the city’s arts and culture presence as including “significant community engagement through surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder interviews.”


Through such measures, it was discovered that “Mission Viejo residents expressed strong support for the creation of multiple types of arts-related facilities.” Such facilities would include a center for the fine and visual arts, with space for exhibits and classes, a 300- to 400-seat performing arts space and an outdoor amphitheater for live music and performances.


The master plan also recommended a feasibility and market study to explore the viability of such projects. So at the March 28, 2023 city council meeting, $100,000 was appropriated for such a study. At the July 11, 2023 meeting, a contract was awarded to Los Angeles-based consulting group TheatreDNA.


Ruesch said TheatreDNA’s study began with “an ongoing series of questions involving myself and community leaders.” Over the course of five meetings, the company gathered data and conducted interviews in order to understand the scope of the project.

Ruesch said the study zeroed in on trying to determine “how big, is there even a true need, and the question of whether we can support it.”


He said that extensive surveys of residents were and are key points of the study and that “the answers to all these questions was and is yes.”


Once several city staffers had pored over TheatreDNA’s exhaustive, 149-page feasibility and market study final report, they then distilled, synopsized and summarized it into a seven-page agenda report.


That capsulized report, as well as the full, 149-page study, were introduced into the record at the March 26, 2024, city council meeting.


What the study found

The mayor pro tem said that the study helped them determine the size and price tag for the performing arts center: a 600-seat theater that would cost about $117 million.


“What that project could take, that’s quite high,” Ruesch said. “For our size city, that amount is daunting.” Another factor, he noted, is the time required: It would take at least a decade for sufficient funds to be raised to design and construct a full-fledged performing arts center.


Among the report’s most significant recommendations are that an all-new performing arts center contain and include the following elements:


  • A sizable lobby and concession area, allowing the lobby to be used as both a visual arts gallery showcasing local talent and a rental space, also including space for a catering prep-kitchen for events;


  • A 600-seat proscenium theater including a stage with sufficient wing space to meet the needs of local and touring companies, an orchestra pit, a full fly system for rigging, state-of-the-art lighting and A/V equipment, dressing rooms and wardrobe;


  • A multi-purpose space that can function as a black box theater, a rehearsal space, or an event space;


  • Offices and storage, including staff support spaces such as offices and work rooms; plus support for vendors and touring production teams, security and storage rooms.


The resulting facility, the study reports, would have a projected area of just over 42,000 square feet of functional space plus an additional 26,000 of support space for a total of 68,000 square feet.



Image 1: TheatreDNA’s analysis and study includes a mockup of how a building repurposed as a studio theater would fit into the surrounding property. Image 2: TheatreDNA’s conceptual schematic rendering of a proposed interim 200- to 300-foot studio theater. Image 3: The study includes plan renderings of a possible studio theater’s orchestra level and balcony level as well as a cross-section of the theater space. Images courtesy of TheatreDNA and the City of Mission Viejo.


Bridging the gap with a ‘starter’ theater

Ruesch said what seems to be the most viable interim solution is the conversion of an existing structure to create a smaller venue to bridge the gap – what the TheatreDNA study refers to as a “studio theater” with an audience capacity of between 200 and 300, what Ruesch refers to as “a starter theater.”


At this year’s March 26 city council meeting, while focusing on the lengthy study and brief summary of it, councilmembers kicked around the possibilities of acquiring property that could be repurposed to create such a theater.


The potential sites are adjacent to what the council calls the “Civic Core Area” launched by the city council at its March 28, 2023 meeting as the “Los Osos Core Area Project” designed to connect the city’s heart, or core area, with 200 acres of open space along Oso Creek.


In its report, TheatreDNA visited, studied and analyzed numerous potential sites for a smaller theater, then compiled that data into a matrix with the various attributes weighted and scored.


The tabulated scores revealed one particular site within the Village Center, the CVS Pharmacy building and property off Marguerite Parkway, was ranked highest due to its proximity to the Los Osos project and to nearby retail, dining and outdoor amenities. That site also ranked high in terms of consumer visibility and accessibility and for its potential to generate the most positive economic impact for the city.


Ranking below that site: the Elks Lodge parking lot, the World Cup soccer field, baseball fields 5 and 6; the Pacific Hills green space on La Paz Road, Garden Plaza, and the Civic Center parking lot.


The study contains the consulting group’s recommendations and parameters for repurposing the CVS into the smaller starter venue (as outlined by Ruesch), evaluates that site, and draws relevant conclusions.


The site footprint for the CVS location, the study notes, “allows for a flexible studio theatre of approximately 300 seats, with both front-of-house and backstage amenities and support spaces. It is ideally located adjacent to the Los Osos project, which has the potential to benefit both projects.”


Not only that, but such a stop-gap smaller venue “would allow the City to fill one of the market gaps identified in the study, with a possible expansion or development of a larger facility in the future.”


Also, “given the smaller size and commensurate adjustment to the programming, the facility could be staffed by two to three full-time employees, with additional part-time staff as needed."


The cost to the city to purchase and then renovate that particular building is an estimated $8 million to $11 million.


Such a facility would occupy a footprint of between 20,000 and 30,000 square feet – one-half to one-third that of the larger venue proposed in the study.

 

More significantly, its cost is some 90 to 93 percent lower than that of the larger, more elaborate proposed venue’s $117 million price tag.


In speaking with Culture OC, Ruesch confirmed that working to create a more modest – and less expansive and less costly – venue in the short term has a two-fold benefit.


First off, it provides for a viable facility that can be used for the foreseeable future. Second, it acts as a so-called “bridge to the future” that allows for fundraising and other organizational activities to occur leading up to the creation, 10 or more years from now, of an all-new, full-fledged performing arts center for the city of Mission Viejo.


A view from the community

One of many to have weighed in on the subject is longtime community member John Huntington.


Huntington hasn’t just lived in Mission Viejo for nearly 40 years; he’s an assistant music teacher at Saddleback College and a lifelong participant in the performing arts – specifically, musical theater.


“Although we are fortunate to have Saddleback College’s excellent performing and visual arts pedagogy so readily available,” Huntington told CultureOC, “its performance spaces are solidly booked for its student population,” a fact echoed by Ruesch and reflected in TheatreDNA’s study.


Huntington outlined the benefits of a new facility by saying, “If Mission Viejo introduces a venue such as proposed, then its character as a community space provides young developing artists with a ‘bridge,’ if you will, between their schooling in the arts and their fully professional career opportunities elsewhere.”


“Such opportunities for the up-and-coming in Orange County,” he lamented, have been diminished by “the loss of such organizations over the years” like the Fullerton Civic Light Opera, Alternative Repertory Theatre.”


Mission Viejo, he said, “is ideally located for the establishment of, for instance, a municipal community theater company, a high-quality, auditioned community youth and/or children’s chorus and/or a versatile gallery space.”


Huntington said that not only would any number of such potential programs realize immense benefits with the creation of a performing arts center, but that “the proposed sites under consideration would distinguish their selection from other spaces in Orange County, most of which lack a sense of congenial, homelike intimacy.”


That intimacy “can be fostered at, say, the corner of LaPaz and Marguerite, or across the green from the Norman P. Murray Community Center.”


An open-ended endeavor

Speaking to city officials, including Ruesch and Mayor Trish Kelley, leads one to the conclusion that all viable options for creating a performing arts center are on the table and that anything worth being explored is under consideration.


Ruesch calls the endeavor “a fluid project whose elements will evolve and change. I’m more than happy to say I know I don’t have all the answers, so I’m not stuck in any one specific idea other than a general vision of what we will get.”


“I continue to listen to those who say it can’t be done,” Ruesch said. “They might provide a missing piece we can incorporate or, on the flip side, make sure something unwanted doesn’t happen.”


Ruesch said in meetings where the creation of a new performing arts venue was discussed, there has always been plenty of interest by the public. “Everyone agreed with it. The fear always is ‘how are we going to pay for it?’”


He’s confident that money exists in the form of what he terms “philanthropies” – donations by “a myriad of seniors out there. If (the project) provides enjoyment for them, we’ll see that money and those endowments.”


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