By Lynne Bronstein
For a short time Monday night it looked like the third time might be a charm for the supporters of the Culver City Ice Arena. With the item once again on the agenda as an information item, the "zealots" were out in full force, packing the Council chamber and offering their pleas to the City Council to "do something" to save the 52-year old arena and ice rink.
The almost-salvation came during public comment when Shannon Takahashi, a member of the family that runs the ice skating rink business, announced that property owner Mike Karagozian had been in talks with her family and had offered a deal whereby the Takahashis will lease the building from him for six months.
Karagozian's new lease with rock-climbing gym business Planet Granite would not kick in until the Takahashi's lease is up. In the meantime, Takahashi and her family were hoping that with community support and other developments, there might be a chance of keeping the rink open for many years.
However, Takahashi added that she had received a phone call that very day from Fire Marshall Mike Bowden, telling her that she could not reopen the arena until after the removal of ammonia and other toxic chemicals, a process that is needed to begin immediately due to faults in the rink's coolant system.
"We've had inspections every year," said Takahashi. "But we never were told we had any problem with our system."
Prior to Takahashi's announcement, speakers had been making emotional appeals, as they had done at two previous meetings. But some of those who spoke after the revelation addressed the new information, wondering why the Council and the city needed to "decommission" the arena now that a deal to keep it open had been made.
Some saw signs of a "conspiracy" between the city and the new lessee. There were not so subtle reminders of the upcoming election. One speaker complained about cynical remarks allegedly made at the previous meeting by two council members whom she declined to name.
Following a break during which some supporters gathered around council members and expressed their disappointment and anger, Fire Chief Chris Sellers gave a detailed report of the problem.
Sellers explained that the Fire Department inspects the ice rink every year but "it's a basic inspection. We do not inspect the mechanical system." Because of concerns about health and safety expressed by Planet Granite as well as the city and the community, the Fire Department had brought in specialists who could vet the environmental issues and suggest solutions.
"A large number of deficiencies were discovered in the current system," said Sellers.
He also apologized for the "confusion" he thought had been caused because he had failed to let the council know that a "facility closure plan" had been submitted by the property owner last week.
Gracious as Sellers' presentation was however, an audience member was heard to audibly hiss at him, an action that council Vice Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells later termed "appalling."
Fire Marshall Bowden explained the process of removing the ammonia (which is the coolant for the ice) and affirmed that removing the ammonia would indeed cause melting of the ice. A new system will have to be installed for the ice rink to again function.
Some public speakers had questioned why this procedure could not be "bypassed" but Bowden and Sellers were firm in their position that to not go through the process would be deleterious to public safety.
Community Development Director Sol Blumenfeld described the historic designation process, whereby a building or fixture is nominated, the history and design of the nominated building is researched and discussed by the Cultural Affairs Commission and a recommendation is made to the council, who then vote for or against designation.
Blumenfeld said that a nomination from a resident has been received. The process of designation may take from two to three months.
As for the issue of zoning as a means of saving the arena, a zoning variance has indeed been found that would require a zoning change for a new business (not an ice arena) to take over the space. At this time, no one has submitted a request for a zoning change.
The gist of the city's information to the council---and to the public---was that ice enthusiasts will simply have to wait.
All five council members agreed with Chief Sellers and Fire Marshall Bowden's precautions for safety. At this time, they emphasized, health and safety loom larger than any other concern.
In response to a community member's comment during the break, O' Leary said that he was "shocked to learn that I had 'switched sides.'"
The real "villain" to O'Leary, was Karagozian, who seemed to him unable to decide who his lessee is: Planet Granite or the Takahashi family.
O' Leary also noted that Karagozian has been quoted as calling the arena "a 52-year old albatross around my neck." This is a reference to Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which a sailor kills an albatross and is cursed to float on the sea with the dead bird around his neck.
"The albatross was a symbol of good luck," said O'Leary. "It only became unlucky when he killed it."