SB City Council attempts last-ditch effort at Ortega Park renovation grant
The murals at Ortega Park were debated again at a Santa Barbara City Council meeting, but solutions and the project’s future remain unclear under a tight schedule.
Saturday is looming as the deadline to receive the state’s environmental approval for the project, and city staff said communication has been scarce from the state in that regard. At Tuesday’s meeting, the council discussed whether to keep pursuing an $8 million state grant or reopen the project design.
Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to keep seeking the grant.
Council members directed city staff to meet again quickly to create a mural advisory committee including the original muralists, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, the Arts Advisory Committee and the Historic Landmarks Commission.
The goal of the meeting is to determine which muralists are willing to recreate their murals and which murals must be preserved.
Furthermore, the council directed staff to look into designating Ortega Park as a historic Chicano and Chumash landmark.
That being said, council members and members of the community voiced concern that a consensus may not be reached before Saturday’s deadline.
“I just don’t see what grounds on which we can pursue the grant knowing that we have a plan that doesn’t have the buy-in from the community,” Councilwoman Meagan Harmon said. “I think everyone unfortunately understands that missing this grant opportunity means another five, 10 years before this amount of money might be available again. I don’t think we’ve hidden the ball on that.
“I’m still hearing the community say, in pretty clear terms, that they don’t support it, so I think that’s important to listen to,” she said.
During the meeting, the majority of public commenters opposed the plan as a whole and called for abandoning the Ortega Park Master Plan and starting over completely.
The few who weren’t opposed to the plan were members of the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department.
“This all started because Ortega Park has not been a safe place for community members for a long time, and it’s turned into a project that people are vilifying as trying to take away from our community. But it started as trying to give the park back to its community,” said Nichol Clark, the chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission. “… Any conversation involving multiple parties that come forward after the discussion in a reactionary manner and engage in blame and witch hunting — it’s not conducive to conflict resolution. I’ve been really dismayed at a lot of the players in this situation.”
Councilman Mike Jordan referred to the efforts to restart the planning process as “hijacking,” saying that anybody who says reopening the plan and still getting a grant are both possible is wrong.
He added that at this point, he’s “not even sure who the players are on the field anymore,” and he “can’t tell who’s asking what, who wants what and who’s speaking for who.”
“On a personal level, for me, if I was a parent of small children in this neighborhood, I would be furious with what’s going on now,” he said.
Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez asked for concrete plans of how the city will continue community engagement and reach a consensus. She said she’s been working on that effort herself since December, and she doesn’t know how to reach an agreement.
The project planner and director of Parks and Recreation, Jill Zachary, presented the update to the council. She asked the council and the public to consider that the facilities on which the murals are painted have a limited life span. In addition, the materials used to paint them are wearing.
Most importantly, if the murals must be preserved in their place, park renovation options are limited, Ms. Zachary said.
However, she wasn’t able to speak to the grant process or where the state is at with their decision.
Ms. Zachary said she had expected feedback from them by now.
“I don’t think we’re even eligible for the grant anymore,” Councilman Eric Friedman said. “I don’t think we can get it done. I could be proved wrong, and we can give it a try because if we don’t, then you’re going to have a park that is going to continue to become dilapidated over time and not meet the community needs. The Eastside deserves a better park than what they currently have.”
The meeting ended quickly Tuesday night, leaving the future of the park and its renovations up in the air. However, after Saturday, the $8 million grant for the $15 million project will be gone, setting the process back, most likely, by years.
“It may mean that, in the end, our renovation looks a little different,” Ms. Harmon said. “It’s new grass, it’s minor renovations until this opportunity comes up again as we develop community consensus.
“In a lot of ways, that would be very disappointing, and I think missing the opportunity would be very disappointing. But if it means centering the will of the neighbors, the will of the community and really lifting up our indigenous Chicano history, that’s worth it.”