Members of Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmarks Commission are calling for a more traditional look for the new and improved De la Guerra Plaza.
The commissioners weighed in on the project’s first concept review on Wednesday afternoon. Many comments focused on the period of significance for the plaza, which is considered to be 1853 to 1924. The commissioners are seeking a design that encapsulates that time period.
“I don’t think the splash pad is of that period of time,” Commissioner Ed Lenvik said. “That’s my biggest disappointment — this seems to be a very contemporary plaza. … To me, this design, this concept is not traditional in any way, shape or form.”
He referred to the splash pad as “modern and unnecessary.”
His fellow colleagues echoed his sentiments.
“I don’t think I could be convinced in any way to agree to the splash pad,” Commissioner Wendy Edmunds said. “I’m a parent and a grandparent and it sounds like a nightmare to me. … It just doesn’t fit and from a practical point of view, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
She proposed a scenario of a family waiting outside restaurants or other places nearby and having children running around soaking wet from the splash pad.
HLC Chair Anthony Grumbine was the sole supporter of the splash pad, but he said it’s only because he has children himself. The commissioners agreed that they would accept a splash pad if it could disappear from view when not in use, but most hope to do away with it, saying the plaza is not a playground.
The commissioners also came to consensus that the project design was too complex for a plaza.
“Using my analogy of a baked potato, which I like to go to a lot, if you’re looking for a twice-baked potato, this one has been cooked four times,” Commissioner Robert Ooley said. “It needs to be, in my opinion, a much more random-feeling plaza. This is very organized, very linear and very grid-like, and it’s too formal.”
Commissioners called for simplified paving patterns, art nodes and tree placement. They also requested more traditional trees for the plaza such as oak, sycamore or olive trees, versus the proposed yellow Palo Verde trees and pink Floss Silk trees.
“I’m not sure that color in the trees is necessary in a traditional plaza. I’m not pleased with what I see, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have the designers walking away thinking they’ve got this thing nailed with this design, because I don’t think it is,” Commissioner Lenvik said.
Commissioner Ooley added that the pavement for the plaza must be low- to no-maintenance, to ensure it’s not stained by flowers that fall from the trees or that people don’t slip on fallen flowers.
Commissioner Edmunds said she wanted to keep the current grass lawn due to the lack of access many Santa Barbara residents have to a grassy lawn, but project staff said that with the grass lawn currently being used for Fiesta, it takes 10 to 12 weeks to recover the area, and poses a lot more maintenance and water usage.
“I don’t know of any plaza that actually is a lawn plaza,” Commissioner Ooley said. “We have wonderful parks in the city that have huge expanses of lawn that could be used. I just see that lawn has constantly been an issue for Parks and Recreation to keep in a nice condition, and typically it’s in ugly condition.”
However, the HLC said they hope to integrate a compass rose on the hardscape plaza, and other historic elements such as plaques to tie the history into it.
Also included in the commission’s requests was more of a connection of De la Guerra Plaza to Casa De la Guerra, using matching paving patterns.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to have Casa De la Guerra reaching into De la Guerra Plaza in some way, shape or form? Create some real connection between the casa and the plaza, which rhetorically, it had originally 150 years ago, and I think that’s been ignored now,” Commissioner Lenvik said.
The commissioners all supported raising the elevation of the road to meet the plaza. They tossed around ideas of potentially redesigning the stage looking at adobe that was originally there as a source of inspiration, implementing a fountain in the center and removing the splash pad and art nodes altogether, and they asked for a lighting strategy in the next concept review.
Overall, the commissioners sang praises of the design, and Chair Grumbine said it allowed the HLC to give a good concept review.
“The Plaza needs rejuvenation while maintaining its basic function as a village square,” Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press, as the plaza sits right outside City Hall. “Our natural beauty enhances the area of course, but if you look closely, the sidewalks are patchwork and the lighting can be improved. I am particularly wanting to improve the lighting and to encourage a pedestrian-friendly design.”
James Joyce III, who is running for 2021 Santa Barbara mayor, told the News-Press, “It’s important to protect our open spaces, especially in downtown. I want to be innovative about how we use the space, while making sure that it continues to serve the community as it has for decades.”
Deborah Schwartz, who is also running for mayor, said that with her experience as a planning commissioner, she sees this project as “a long-overdue effort to revitalize and reactivate the historic heart of our town center.”
“The project subcommittee’s consensus purpose statement is: ‘De la Guerra Plaza celebrates and honors the historic heart of our city and provides the flexibility to serve our community’s diverse social, cultural, historic, economic and environmental vitality,’” Ms. Schwartz told the News-Press. “The open public process includes today’s Historic Landmarks Commission review of the design keeping in mind the five ‘vitalities’ identified by the subcommittee: Social, Cultural, Historical, Economic, Environmental.”
The project planners will return to the HLC for a second concept review in the near future.