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Museum of Natural History Hosts Neighborhood Forum

Community Meeting Addresses Questions and Concerns About Expansion Project


Community meetings are often portrayed as gatherings for irate citizens to express their anger at the city’s choices, but the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s gathering on Saturday was far from hostile. A couple dozen people attended a presentation and forum for an update about the museum’s proposed plan to expand and renovate its facilities.

Environmental-related concerns took the floor, with questions coming from attendees about possible disturbances to nearby ecology as the project moves forward. “This is an environmental restoration project,” said the project’s architect Walter Schacht, “it is about creating a better relationship between the museum and nature.” He stressed the point that all changes made will be beneficial to the surrounding environment.

Discussed at the beginning of the meeting was the museum’s request to have a portion of the county annexed to become part of the city. This led to a question about the effect of this annexation on things such as lighting, streets, sidewalks, and other standard parameters that are related to city regulations. “We have not begun the discussion with the city yet,” explained Suzanne Elledge, head of planning & permitting services, “but we aren’t proposing such changes.” It is yet to be seen whether the annexation will be approved, and what effects it may have.

One concerned citizen asked about whether expansion was the best idea, and inquired about the tradeoff: “How much additional square footage, money, and land are going to be needed to repair the buildings,” he said. Disconcerted by the perceived arbitrariness of the decision to repair inefficient buildings, he suggested leveling the area and simply rebuilding. “We cannot level the buildings,” said Schacht. “We need to preserve the historic structures and structures of merit.” One of the main focuses of the project is reportedly to restore the original buildings and surrounding nature, a process that excludes a strategy requiring demolition of any buildings that have not lost their integrity.

Widely discussed was the MacVeigh House, which the museum plans to move to the woodland area, where it will take the place of an already-existing structure (a non-historical building). This move raised questions about the function of the building, its effect on the surrounding natural area, and the means to physically move it. One suggestion was to move the MacVeigh House to a site closer to the new director’s residence, due to the meetings and assemblies held in it. “After the move, the MacVeigh House will only be used as a residence,” explained Schacht. “The services will be held in other buildings.” The area surrounding the MacVeigh House was also brought up, and its potential impact on the woodland. “It would be moved toward the woods, and we probably would remove a couple of trees, but I think there will be a clearing big enough for the house without many changes to the landscape,” said Karl Hutterer, director of the museum.

“So you have made plans to take apart and move the house, but you don’t know how you are going to do it?” asked someone, a serious question with a hint of sarcasm to make his point. “Yes,” answered Schacht, chuckling along with the attendees, “but we will be working with the construction team to find a plan that works.”

The museum is very enthusiastic about the proposed loading dock, which would be indoors, allowing temperature and humidity control for better preservation of the specimens being transported. The concern of nearby residents is noise. Listeners were assured that this has not been overlooked, and the next study to be performed is a noise impact study.

How all this construction and moving is going to be done is something most people have been wondering about. Altering parts of a museum and exhibits is far from simple, so how long will it take? Will it be divided up into sections? However, the plans aren’t to that point yet, and the development strategy is still being formed. What we do know is that there will be regular construction for more than five years, possibly longer. [Museum spokesperson Easter Moorman emailed The Independent after this article was published to clarify that it is too early for the museum to have a project construction timeline and that the schedule is dependent on whether the project is phased into sections or if the project is completed in a single phase.] The museum “may be closing for several years for regular construction,” Schacht suggested, but specifics have not yet been determined.

The museum plans will be presented on June 17 at a joint meeting of the City of Santa Barbara’s Historic Landmarks Commission and Planning Commission.

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