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Santa Barbara Gives Nod to Children’s Museum

City Council clears way for museum to be built from the ground up on unused land on Lower State Street.

Persuaded by a broad coalition of movers and shakers, the Santa Barbara City Council agreed Tuesday to fast-track the process of setting aside a patch of unused land on Lower State Street for a children’s museum.

The 7-0 decision came after a group of about 40 museum proponents packed City Hall to urge the council to forego a more formal process that would have invited organizations locally and beyond to submit proposals to develop the unused property at 125 State St.

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“The bottom line is that people want more for their kids in Santa Barbara,” said Paul Selwyn, board president of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Children’s Museum.

The group also delivered a petition with 1,000 signatures.

The council voted to begin negotiating with the organization, which seeks to lease the land south of the railroad tracks near Kimberly Avenue for a “nominal” fee.

The council’s decision comes four months after it balked at a similar request from the same group, due to the group’s apparent lack of strong community support.

On Tuesday, the supporters came in spades, and a parade of them spoke to the council in favor of the project. They included a UCSB professor, a former principal, a current school board member, the founder of SBParent.com and two Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce officials.

“We have all kinds of resources here in Santa Barbara for families, but the one thing that is lacking is an indoor facility,” said one of the supporters, Rachael Steidl, founder of SBParent.com, which seeks to centralize resources for young families.

Prospective donors from local foundations like Hutton and Orfalea also have made pledges, but the law forbids the Santa Barbara Children’s Museum from accepting any money before it has secured a location.

“We’ve done our part — now we’re asking you to do your part,” Selwyn told the council. “Give us the lot, give us the time, and we’ll show you the money.”

Selwyn is one of the founders of the Los Angeles Children’s Museum, built in 1979. At the time, there were about 30 such museums throughout the nation; now, there are 300, he said.

Generally, the museums are geared for children ages 3-10. In the Los Angeles museum, the myriad exhibits include stations where children can listen to heartbeats through stethoscopes and view X-rays, dress up like firefighters, and learn about the environment.

Selwyn reckons the group will need about $8 million to build the project. He said he wouldn’t expect the doors to open for at least two years.

While most of the council members voiced support, none seemed as fervent as Iya Falcone, who pointed out that she was in the minority in wanting to approve the project four months ago.

“I fully respect that this city in particular goes to great lengths to provide innumerable activities,” she said. “However, there are very few places for the family to go.”

The site at 125 State St. had been slated to be a parking lot. The plan was part of a complicated partnership with a time-share project now under way on Lower State Street. In it, the city still has the option to take one of the project’s suites to build a visitor’s center, but that would also require the city to create parking. The city had previously decided the 125 State St. property was an ideal location for the parking, but City Administrator Jim Armstrong said he believes the city can find another site.

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