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Local News

Council Makes Proposed Children’s Museum a Community Priority

Santa Barbara project gains an edge on a location with unanimous backing

Eliciting applause from observers Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously granted community priority status to a children’s museum project on Lower State Street. The proposed Children’s Museum of Santa Barbara would be located at 125 State St., adjacent to the Amtrak station.

The museum, aimed at children ages 2-10 and their families, has been around since the early 1990s, when it operated out of a La Cumbre Plaza storefront. After three years, the group running the museum lost two donated leases and was forced to fold. Since then, backers have been searching for a location to put down roots. Among the mix of potential spots was a site on West Anapamu Street, which was later deemed to small for the 14,000-square-foot building.

But in 2007, the City Council directed the Redevelopment Agency to negotiate exclusively with the Children’s Museum on the property at 125 State St., which is owned by the RDA and is adjacent to the train station. It was essential that the project qualify as a community priority to qualify to lease the half-acre property.

A project meets a “community priority” and advances the public’s benefit if it’s determined “necessary to meet present or projected needs directly related to public health, safety or general welfare.” Santa Barbara’s municipal code defines “general welfare” as a “community priority project which has broad public benefit (for example: museums child-care facilities, or community centers) and which is not principally operated for private profit.”

Planner Dan Gullett said there were several constraints on the site, including noise and traffic, as well as a requirement that the project have an appropriate design for the El Pueblo Viejo District. Another potential issue could arise if the site is found to be environmentally contaminated, in which case, the redevelopment agency would act if any remediation is necessary, said Mark Aguilar, redevelopment specialist for the city.

During public comment, Sheila Cushman, executive director for the Children’s Museum, spoke with two 9-year-old students from Cesar Chavez School. Holding up a notebook that she called a “top-secret design book,” Cushman said the pages were filled with the girls’ ideas and drawings for potential exhibits. Cushman said middle school and high school students would be able to serve and act as role models and fulfill community service opportunities. She called the museum “a safe, centrally located, fully accessible site for all segments of the community to come together, play, learn and share” and encouraged the council to approve the request.

Gordon Auchincloss, a Children’s Museum board member, is also a criminal prosecutor and a Teen Court judge for the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. The father of a 9 year old, Auchincloss said opportunities created for children keep them out of trouble.

“I work in the felony criminal court, and every day, a big part of my job is to put people behind bars,” he said. “Most criminal recidivists were, at one point, kids that got off track and because of that ... I am a true believer that we cannot do enough for our children.”

Taylor Barnes, a 14-year-old La Colina Junior High student, said she had recently gone to the children’s museum in Chicago. Visiting the museum had been a great experience, she said, urging council members to approve one locally.

“It will get a lot of kids being active and interactive,” she told the council.

Around the council dais, praise for the project was unanimous.

“I can’t think of a better time to start this project than now,” Councilman Roger Horton said. He heralded the location for the project and said he believed the economy would be on the upswing when construction could finally commence.

Councilwmoman Helene Schneider said she supported the project and hoped the museum could continue to garner youth input about its appearance. Schneider said she wanted the architecture to stay within Historic Landmarks Commission guidelines, but hoped it would be distinctive as a children’s museum.

Councilwoman Iya Falcone said the project was part of a new era of partnership to provide education, by cooperating with nonprofit organizations, schools and the private sector. Falcone also cautioned that memorandum of understanding was “an outline ... setting the parameters.”

“For anyone who thinks ‘Oh, in this time of need, we’re just agreeing to help a whole new endeavor,’ that’s not the case,” Falcone said. Renegotiations were always possible, but she said the MOU would show that the city was behind the efforts.

Just before the motion passed, Mayor Marty Blum offered her support.

“We’re going to make sure kids know that we care about them,” she said.

Now that the council has approved the community priority element, concept design for the landmarks commission will emerge in a few months, and museum advocates the grand opening will occur in 2013.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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