Flint Center’s half-century run as Silicon Valley entertainment hub comes to an end
CUPERTINO — It’s where a young Steve Jobs unveiled the first Macintosh computer in 1984. Where singer Johnny Cash, actor Cary Grant, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and every U.S. president since Richard Nixon except George W. Bush and Donald Trump took the stage over the decades.
But in the coming months, Silicon Valley’s iconic Flint Center for the Performing Arts will be torn down. Its last act was a Palo Alto University graduation ceremony, on June 22.
The board of the Foothill DeAnza Community College District last month voted to close the 2,400-seat theater in Cupertino, which opened in 1971, saying it needs at least $50 million in seismic upgrades, renovations and accessibility upgrades for people with disabilities.
Instead of renovating the center, however, the district plans to replace the building with one more directly focused on student needs. It hasn’t decided yet what the purpose of that new facility will be or how much it will cost to build.
“It’s sad, after being there for so many years and serving this northern part of the county so well,” said Dick Henning, founder of the popular Celebrity Forum speaker series that’s been a staple of the Flint Center since 1976. “But it’s a big theater and very difficult to fill up, and it’s very hard to make money on theaters.”
The Flint Center has hosted Broadway shows, local symphonies, nutcrackers, religious services and college graduations. Its Celebrity Forum has brought foreign dignitaries such as former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu and celebrities like 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and Star Trek actor George Takei. In its last year, the series heard from former FBI director James Comey.
Not least, it’s been the place where Jobs and other Apple executives have unveiled the company’s newest phones, computers, watches and other cutting-edge products. It was even the filming site for a 2015 Steve Jobs biopic.
Yet, filling the theater’s seats and booking events year-round has been a struggle. A 2015 study by the district found Flint is booked only 17 to 24 percent of the year and hosts just six or seven annual events that draw more than 2,000 people. Last year, Flint Center booked 80 events.
Trustee Peter Landsberger said it was an easy call for him to vote to close Flint Center.
“Given the fact that it’s not the facility that is most in demand in this area at this time, and does not serve the instructional or student services at the college, I just couldn’t see the validity of making that big of an investment,” Landsberger said. “If you’re going to have to invest 50 million or more, you need to do it in a way that’s going to maximize a benefit for the college, and for the community at large.”
In 2015, the district discussed a number of ideas for replacing Flint Center, including a conference center, office space and faculty or student housing. All those ideas are still on the table, as district staff is expected to present a plan in October with development options to consider later next year. The district will also hold a town hall meeting that month.
At a June 10 district board meeting, some students called for converting the site to housing to combat student homelessness. The board is also considering a “flexible” cultural or performing arts space that could be expanded or shrunk depending on the size of an event, district Chancellor Judy Miner said.
“I share the community’s sense of loss,” Miner said. “I do think the community can expect there will be a great deal of opportunity to help shape what goes in that space.”
Trustee Gilbert Wong, the only board member to vote against closing Flint Center, pointed to a district survey in which more than 80 percent of respondents said they wanted to see it renovated as a theater rather than another use.
“Our students are our number one goal, but what makes DeAnza [College] special is our Flint Center,” Wong said. “Why do we have to choose between housing and the theater arts — why can’t we have both?”
Wong said the district could explore other options, such as a naming rights deal or bond measure, to save Flint Center.
“Why would you want to build a new Flint Center when we have one that has a history?” Wong said.
Paula Davis, general manager of Flint Center, agrees. She questions whether the building needs as much work as indicated in a district-commissioned study, which suggested it would cost $28,000 a month to make ongoing renovations while keeping it open.
“There are things that absolutely do need improvement, but is the price tag — the big, scary 50 million dollars — the number? No, I don’t believe so,” Davis said. “I believe there’s a mid-range number that would have done what it needed to keep Flint safe, acceptable and online.”
Davis said she’s glad to hear the board is interested in building a new performance space but is concerned the funding will never materialize.
“It’s going to be easily $150 million to build a 1,500-seat facility when you could have spent 50 million to keep the one you’ve got,” Davis said. “I think when they are actually faced with those numbers and money, I doubt another performing arts facility will get built.”
There’s currently no timeline for when the 73,000-square-foot performing arts center will be demolished, at an estimated cost of $8.4 million.
District officials have suspected structural and code problems with Flint Center for years, and earlier this year opted to close the building to avoid potential safety or liability issues while waiting for a full report on the building’s condition. The district also didn’t want to be on the hook for financial liabilities if it had to cancel shows.
The report recommended structural fixes, such as replacing the roof and reinforcing concrete walls and beams, as well as renovations to get the theater up to code, such as replacing guardrails on staircases and updating sprinkler systems.
“The board decided to err on the side of safety,” Miner said. “The [disability] issues that could have come up would be huge, and we’d be ripe for a lawsuit if we continued to have the building open.”
In 2014, the district discovered seismic issues with an adjacent parking garage, eventually spending $33.5 million to retrofit it.
Davis said bookings have dropped in recent years for a number of reasons, including the loss of two symphonies that lost outside funding and events that went elsewhere because the parking structure was closed for construction.
“They had to go away for a year, and when they went away, they decided to stay where they were,” Davis said. “I don’t think we did a good job of reaching out to former clients once the structure was back online.”
Davis said some larger performance groups will have difficulty competing for space at nearby facilities of a similar size, like the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts and City National Civic in San Jose.
“There are people who are going to have to miss this market, or adapt … or scale down their productions,” Davis said.
Henning said he had contemplated finding someone to take over the Celebrity Forum, but when he heard Flint Center would be closed, he decided to end the series altogether.
“The Celebrity Forum was extremely successful, there just weren’t enough activities like it that could sell out the theater,” Henning said.
A modified version of the speaker series will be launched in San Jose by another group, Henning said.
It’s unclear how much the reconstruction would cost or how it would be funded.
Miner said the district is hoping a new facility could be funded by a public-private partnership and ultimately cost less than the $50 million estimated for renovating Flint Center.
The board’s goal is to find a use for the property that will directly benefit students, Landsberger said.
“The best decision to make is, let’s turn to the future rather than continue to argue about the Flint Center,” Landsberger said.
Contact Thy Vo at 408-200-1055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.