Development of nearby public recreational space, renewed partnerships with the city, ongoing developments within Elings Park and a new generation of park users, volunteers and supporters are all keys to the future for the nation’s largest privately funded park.
“Anything that’s 30 years old is long in the tooth and tattered,” said Mike Nelson, executive director of the Elings Park Foundation. “I’d like to see the same sort of civic imperative in its restoration that the community demonstrated to build this park.
“Can we rejuvenate and restore what we have? Can we recognize the opportunity that has presented itself? We are at a pivotal point in this organization. I’m hopeful there are another 30 rich years ahead of us.”
While the city has turned down the foundation’s various attempts to add facilities, including a swimming pool, a community center, zip lines and additional athletic fields, it has made moves to expand on other recreational opportunities in the neighborhood.
“This huge public landscape is being assembled at the end of Las Positas Canyon on the Pacific Ocean,” Nelson said. “The city has begun making capital improvements such as a roundabout that is as friendly to bikes and pedestrians as it is to cars. They are planning on a multipurpose bike path that leads directly to this roundabout. And Elings is the hub of it all.”
The city is developing transportation, park space and creek restoration projects in the Las Positas Valley that, taken together, will improve roadway circulation, provide multimodal access, enhance recreation, preserve open space, restore creek habitats and improve water quality, according to a staff report released in February.
The projects include the construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Cliff Drive and Las Positas Road, alternative transportation improvements along Las Positas and Modoc roads, acquisition of a 15-acre vacant parcel for an open space park, and restoration of lower Arroyo Burro on city-owned parcels.
“You have the potential, in this landscape where there’s program integration between the city, the county and the nonprofit, to maximize the landscape for its exploration, environmental and recreational potential. That’s the challenge of the future,” Nelson said.
The $1.4 million roundabout project at Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive has been in the works since gaining Santa Barbara City Council approval in 2013.
The newly redesigned intersection, which received a stamp of approval from the city’s Architecture Board of Review in 2015, will feature a single-lane roundabout, wide medians in the middle of the road that allow pedestrians to cross at three separate points, and a 10-foot-wide multiuse path for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The design will allow for future connectivity to a proposed multiuse pathway along Las Positas Road and bike lanes and/or a bike path along Cliff Drive, according to the city’s traffic engineering department.
The city controls the future use of lands outside the 230-acre park and, through its review process, major developments within it. Public support for the foundation that manages the park ensures future access to the land and determines its use.
“Let’s face it. We need to tweak our existing programs and develop new recreational programs to meet the needs of the changing demographics of the community, and while you may think the sounds associated with weddings are joyful noises, some of our neighbors don’t necessarily feel that way, so we have an obligation to keep our finger on the pulse and listen to them as well,” Nelson said.
Longtime park advocate and board member Marcia Constance keeps that in mind when she looks to the future of the park addition referred to as the Jesuit property, but she also tries to balance the needs of the community at large.
“Right now, it’s a wonderful place to walk and paraglide, and we’ll have a nice tennis center, but the community has discouraged us from moving forward on other wonderful projects,” Constance said.
It’s a sore subject with supporters such as Virgil Elings, a major financial contributor to the park that bears his name.
“The city acts like you’re trying to build condos up there, so they treat you like a developer,” Elings said. “The idea is to serve the people of Santa Barbara and do it in a way that’s fairly easy.”
“The planning culture in the city has been a bit prohibitive. Still, the foundation has a never-say-die attitude up there that keeps them plugging on,” said Ken Jacobsen, president of the Santa Barbara Rugby Association and a one-time foundation board member.
Nelson hopes to spark the community into action through expanded understanding of the foundation’s purpose and goals and, particularly, the fee-for-access structure at what many misunderstand to be a tax-subsidized public property.
“Key to the park’s development was that a public subsidy wouldn’t be required to keep this facility going, and it hasn’t,” Nelson said.
The contentious transfer of tennis court management from city departments to the foundation already has resulted in resurfacing of the decaying courts, replacement of the windscreens, new fencing and viewing area improvements. Through its tennis club, the park foundation provides an on-site manager, clinics, private and group lessons as well as league play.
“We’re in store for renovation of the whole facility in the future. That’s going to make the place really buzz. That’ll be really exciting,” said Adam Webster, who serves alongside his brother, Aaron Webster, as the park’s tennis pros. “I’d like to continue building our programs, to have exhibition events, get an opposite-hand tournament, more kids tournaments and get our young-populations, grassroots program to flourish.”
That dream has been a long time coming. It was, after all, the idea of building a community tennis club that drove Constance to support the park from day one.
“Sometimes recreation isn’t seen as socially compelling,” Nelson said. “People think, ‘It’s just a rec program,’ but it’s not. It’s quality of life for the community. It’s open space. It’s healthy lifestyle. It’s an urban park.
“While it’s great to have national parks and seashores, this is the one that’s in people’s backyards, a place you take a hike after work, walk the dog. Hopefully, the community will keep it alive.”
Facility rentals, community partnerships and user fees cover about 75 percent of more than $1 million in annual maintenance and operations expenses. The remainder comes from donations.
“Everyone says, ‘We love parks. We want more parks. We’re willing to pay for them.’ But when it comes to ballot initiatives that put a small assessment on property tax to cover those expenses, it doesn’t work,” Nelson said.
Instead, the foundation continues to focus heavily on partnerships with organizations that help fund the park through facility rentals, maintain the park through volunteerism and build toward the future with its own program development.
“What happens too often is that everyone who uses and enjoys a park focuses very much on their own interests. If you’re a softball player, you love playing softball there. If you’re into tennis, you love playing tennis there. But you may not see it as a whole,” Nelson said. “People often don’t recognize it as a park that provides all these things.”