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Liberty and the Pursuit of Arts

The former Naval Training Center is marching——and dancing——into new life as an arts and retail conglomeration called Liberty Station, with the NTC Promenade housing the heart of the cultural community


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IT’S A COOL AND SUNNY Saturday. Dance Place San Diego is buzzing with rehearsals and an occasional impromptu performance. A budding ballerina in a pale blue leotard strides like a diva down a long stretch of hallway. She spins and twirls past the dance photographs decorating the wall, pictures that depict muscled outstretched limbs and sculpted bodies that glisten with sweat. Inside a rehearsal room, one woman is teaching another the gyrations of belly dancing, in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A few feet away, an Asian actress wearing black rectangle glasses and a jaunty cap appears to be speaking to an invisible stranger as she rehearses her lines.

The 23,000-square-foot Dance Place San Diego was once known as Building 175 and housed administrative offices. Today, it’s a modern, two-story structure with a glass elevator and one of the jewels of the NTC Promenade in Point Loma. Nonprofit arts organizations such as the Actors Alliance of San Diego, Malashock Dance, San Diego Ballet, Butterworth Dance and Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theatre call it home.

Within its walls, like-minded individuals come together to share the common goals of artistic growth and prosperity. But outside the building, there are still traces of a very different community that once defined this space and all that surrounds it. And the question remains: Will NTC Promenade become the arts and culture destination so many envision?

In the 1920s, the city of San Diego provided more than 200 acres of land for U.S. Navy and U.S. Naval Reserve personnel to receive training. Over the years, it grew to a miniature city that rose up from the mud and dust. The military base, named the Naval Training Center, expanded to more than 500 acres, with 300 buildings constructed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. Barracks surrounding the courtyard housed the men. By the 1930s, there were 41 specialized schools on base, along with a barber shop, golf course, post office, mess hall and commissary. Recruits were initially sent to Camp Ingram, named after Osmond K. Ingram, the first American killed in action during World War I. Within those barracks, men were transformed into soldiers with haircuts, uniforms and physical training.

The naval base provided good times, too. The Luce Auditorium, a 2,200-seat theater built in 1941, screened training films. Everyone from Nat King Cole to Bob Hope to Lawrence Welk entertained troops from its stage. Hollywood movies also were popular at the Luce, and some of Point Loma’s old-timers can recall the days when the price of a ticket was 30 cents.

A white chapel with leaded-glass windows was completed in 1942, and services representing all religions were conducted. At the Command Center, top-ranking officials hosted meetings with visiting dignitaries. Ceremonies were held on Preble Field, a marching ground where more than 20,000 sailors gathered in 1945 for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorial service.

By the 1990s, San Diego had become home to more than a sixth of the Navy’s entire fleet. The NTC contributed millions of dollars to San Diego’s economy, and every year thousands of visitors traveled here to attend graduation ceremonies.

Military downsizing began at the end of the Cold War, and in 1993, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided NTC would close. The Navy entered into a master lease agreement with the city. After years of public discourse and meetings with various consultants, the San Diego City Council adopted a Reuse Plan in 1998. The redevelopment of NTC is described as a place “surrounded by green, bordered by water and centered on history. It is to be a place where San Diegans can come together in an active, productive and stimulating environment . . . visiting NTC will mean experiencing parks, retail shops, museums and an urban waterfront.”

The Corky McMillin Companies, chosen as master developer of the new plan, broke ground in 2000. The former naval base, which had the appearance of a ghost town, was to become an upscale community of homes, stores, parks and educational facilities known as Liberty Station. At its center would be the NTC Promenade, an arts-and-culture district comprising 26 historic buildings.

The nonprofit NTC Foundation was established to raise funds and oversee the renovation of those structures. In 2003, its volunteer board of directors pursued Alan Ziter to lead the project. At the time, he was serving as director of the San Diego Performing Arts League, a job he held for 18 years.

“The board was seeking new leadership,” says Ziter. “I was already aware of the enormous challenges the project faced and the large amounts of money needed. I rode my bike from downtown around the harbor and over to NTC, which at that time was totally abandoned in the historic district. I rode down the colonnades, the arcades, through the plazas and saw close up the incredible buildings and thought this was an unprecedented opportunity for San Diego, and it needed to be done right.”

CREATING A THRIVING arts community—in a place nationally identified as a navy base for more than half a century—would be one giant hurdle, Ziter knew. Renovating 26 dilapidated but historic buildings would require continuous and creative fund-raising. On top of that, he would have to convince visual and performing artists that moving to Liberty Station would be a wise choice. His vision for a cultural destination, one that would attract all ages, had to be contagious.

Ziter took the job and began work on Phase One, the rehabilitation of the first six buildings, accomplished with an initial investment of $26 million. The money came from a city council–approved grant of $5.85 million, funded by a federal loan that must be repaid with tax-increment dollars. The balance was supplied through private donations and federal tax credits.

The city also offered a provision for a second matching grant of up to $6 million if four specific buildings of Phase One were made ready for occupancy. The NTC Foundation completed all six buildings in the time frame required and received the grant last December. The next phase the foundation has targeted involves the North Promenade barracks. Ziter envisions working glass blowers, potters, painters and other visual artists in those spaces.

Just over a year ago, when John Malashock moved into his second-floor studio at Dance Place San Diego, it felt like home, he says. Natural light streamed across the floor, and there were 12-foot-high ceilings and views of the airport, the Coronado Bridge and the downtown skyline. Just below his studio, he looked down on a lush green landscape, beautified by rose gardens and fountains framed by tall palms.

“I know what a good studio feels like, and I just knew this would be a wonderful space,” says Malashock, an award-winning choreographer who founded his company in 1988. “It mimics a good stage, and there is great light. When you take those elements and put in a great dance floor—you want to move in here.”

Of all the renovated buildings, Malashock notes that Dance Place San Diego has “the clearest purpose and the most identifiable result.” But he is worried. All of the resident dance companies are nonprofits, and their success is tied to the success of NTC Promenade. Malashock, who signed a five-year lease, hopes that the old Luce Auditorium will be up and running soon. A feasibility study that outlines consumer demands will help determine its future.

“My biggest concern is that there is a performance space, so people don’t come here just for rehearsing or for taking a class,” he says. “There needs to be a performance component as well. The Luce could definitely be multi-use. Right now, it’s a 1,800-seat auditorium, but I’d like to see a 500- to 600-seat theater.”

When Ziter considers other large theaters in San Diego, he notes the times when they are dark. “What can you do in a space that big that could combine the best of exhibits, performances and conferences—so you are maximizing the income you would get, and use of the facility?” he asks. “If you create a first-class visual arts center, and if you have a place where dancers can perform right next to their building, you are enhancing their ability to be more successful.

“But someone needs to pick up the ball and run with it. We estimate it would take $10 million, and that would be over and above the money we would spend to make it ADA-accessible. A good plan would be something that would bring activity during the day and the evenings. When the right idea comes forward, it will get done.”

THOUGH PLANS FOR THE LUCE are uncertain, Ziter is pushing forward. He is quick to remind himself and others of the achievements that have been realized at the NTC Promenade. There are 25 civic and nonprofit groups now in residence, and many have training programs for kids and families. CoastKeepers does environmental research, and its watertesting lab is beneficial for youngsters to view. The new Americans’ Immigration & Learning Center will increase foot traffic, and the Visions Art Quilt and San Diego Watercolor Society galleries are seeing an increase in membership and sales.

Other successes at NTC Promenade are not easily seen, but they are far more profound. One of the first tenants to sign a lease was Matt D’Arrigo, who runs the Pat D’Arrigo A.R.T.S. (A Reason To Survive) Center. The space is named after his late mother, who had stirred his desire to inspire and empower children through the arts. D’Arrigo hopes his nonprofit will go national and says taking up residence at NTC Promenade could move him closer to that goal.

“The synergy between collaborating nonprofits, working together on issues, being in such close proximity to each other was very appealing,” says D’Arrigo. “The nonprofit world can be very lonely and isolating, and this was an opportunity to be a part of something bigger than A.R.T.S., bigger than any one individual nonprofit.”

Inside the A.R.T.S. space, there is a painting studio, potter’s wheels and a music room with guitars, a piano and other percussion instruments.

“It’s a beautiful campus, and I think it’s so important to bring the kids we work with out of their environments and into this setting,” says D’Arrigo. “It’s important for them to see what is beyond their neighborhoods.”

Monarch School, which offers accredited education to homeless and at-risk youngsters, is one of many organizations served by ARTS. Thirteen-year-old Inocente, a Monarch student, recently got a work permit to assist other children at the center. She won the job after telling D’Arrigo what art meant to her in a letter.

“I love art because it helps me get problems out of my head from school and home,” Inocente writes. “Art is a way to show my emotions, and it’s the way I communicate with others . . . it’s a way of seeing things differently. Thanks for giving me this opportunity.”

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