Symphony’s permanent home on the bay could be ready for 2020 summer pops

Approved long-term lease agreement is the last major action ahead of construction on the $45 million project


If all goes according to plan, patrons of the San Diego Symphony’s annual outdoor concert series will next summer find that the usual pop-up venue has been replaced with an ultramodern, permanent structure.

Wednesday, Port of San Diego commissioners unanimously approved a long-term ground lease with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Association for operation of a 3.68-acre venue on the 10.8-acre Embarcadero Marina Park South site. The action follows the board’s December approval of a coastal permit, and clears the way for construction of the $45 million project, which includes around $3 million in improvements to the surrounding waterside park.

“San Diego Symphony has dreamed for many, many years of a permanent venue on the bay, one that would be both the home for the symphony, but also a destination and a gift for our entire community,” said Martha Gilmer, who is the symphony’s chief executive officer. “We have designed a performance venue that will have state-of-the-art acoustics and aesthetics, (be) an addition to our skyline, create new and improved musical experiences for all of our community, and provide significant improvements to the public space.”

The project includes a 13,015-square-foot outdoor stage, acoustic shell and back-of-house facilities for a year-round version of the Bayside Summer Nights program, formerly called Summer Pops. It also entails a 5,445-square-foot public viewing deck with concrete steps at the back of the stage, a 68-stall restroom and two pavilions on a 15,242-square-foot area.

In addition, the symphony is required to replace the basketball courts at the opposite end of the Embarcadero park, relocate the outdoor gym equipment currently surrounding its venue and update the public restrooms.

Work should begin in September and wrap up in time for the symphony’s 2020 Bayside Summer Nights program, Gilmer told commissioners.

She did not say how much of the project cost the local nonprofit has raised to date. In November, when the Coastal Commission approved the project, the symphony had pooled $6 million in funds. The group is on the hook for all building costs, but will receive a $2.9 million rent credit for upgrading the public amenities on the parts of Embarcadero Marina Park South that are outside its leasehold.

The approved lease grants the symphony use of what’s being called Bayside Performance Park for 15 years with options to extend the term up to 50 years. It also spells out a number of privileges and restrictions designed to make the deal both a revenue generator for the port and a benefit to the public.

Port commissioners applauded the agreement, characterizing it as a win for all involved.

“This is a unique and wonderful deal,” Commissioner Marshall Merrifield said. “I’m not sure when we’ll see another (deal) like this. To allocate 15 percent of a public park for the benefit of one of our jewel nonprofits, one of the great creators of music in the southwest United States, is a brilliant combination.”

The port will charge rent based on revenue generated from ticket sales, food and beverage sales, merchandise sales and parking income. The percentage rent, however, won’t kick in until the rent credit for public benefits burns off. During that period, the port will charge the symphony $100,000 in rent per year, although no rent is due until 2020.

By year 10, when operations normalize, the port expects to collect around $1.1 million in rent, said Sean Jones, who works in the port’s real estate department.

Additionally, the port will charge the symphony 3 percent of net income generated from the sale of naming rights. And the port will allow the organization, through a one-year pilot program, to issue its own permits for the venue.

To ensure regular public access, the symphony is limited to hosting 110 half-day or 55 full-day ticketed events. And only six of those ticketed events can max out the venue’s 10,000-seat capacity. The remainder of the year the turf lawn in front of the stage and the viewing deck will be open during normal park hours.

The symphony has also agreed to host free events such as movies, workshops and rehearsals. And the nonprofit must manage day-to-day operations, including security.

With the lease secured, the symphony can turn its long-desired performance venue into a reality ahead of next year’s outdoor series. Commissioners Michael Zucchet and Robert Valderrama, however, warned the organization that its nine-month construction timeline might be too aggressive.

“Humbly speaking, it seems everything is going to have to go just right to have your summer program opening there next June,” Zucchet said. “Doing it right, of course, would trump everything else, including making the 2020 season.”

Gilmer, the symphony CEO, said that that the nonprofit’s general contractor, Rudolph and Sletten, is confident in the timeline, but that contingencies, including use of the symphony’s indoor hall, are in place.