Could a public ping pong table turn the front of Santa Barbara’s library from a civic dead zone used mostly by sleeping homeless people into a vibrant plaza full of lunching professionals, curious tourists, and happy families?
Hugh Margerum and Mark Collins think so, and have been rallying momentum around the idea since January. They’ve got timing on their side — the roughly $2 million plan to completely redesign the area died at the end of last year when redevelopment funds were slashed — and they’re also promising to pay for everything to install a special type of graffiti-proof, artfully designed concrete table that’s been successfully used in public places throughout the rest of the world, from Beaverton, Oregon, to Berlin, Germany.
“We want to reclaim this little bit of land for everyone,” said Margerum on Tuesday, overlooking the square known Library Plaza, where a handful of homeless people were laying on the grass. “Right now, no one’s gonna take their kids there for a picnic.”
While displacing homeless people isn’t the point, said Collins, Library Plaza is perfect because the low walls would stop balls from flying into the street; the same can’t be said for the duo’s first choice of Storke Placita, where balls would wind up on State Street. “This is an opportunity to take an ideal space and transfer it into something more useful,” explained Collins, who is also offering to pay for removal if the table doesn’t work out or replicate it in other areas of town if it does. “Money is not the issue. It’s permission.”
It’s still early in the consensus-building phase, but they’re approached the people who count. “I know all about the ping pong idea,” said Mayor Helene Schneider. “I think it’s worth looking into. It needs support from the immediate neighbors and some reaching out there, but I think that it has potential if it if done right.”
One such neighbor is Frank Goss of the Sullivan-Goss gallery, directly across the street. Though a fan of ping pong, Goss is opposed, fearing that the table will become shelter for the homeless. “Unfortunately, the ping pong table will have other uses, and it won’t be what they want,” said Goss, who does support the idea elsewhere. “You won’t be able to play ping pong because there’ll be a guy sleeping on the table.”
Right now, the ball is in the court of the library administration, which is both intrigued and concerned. “There are issues,” said director Irene Macias, though she remains upbeat about the possibility and has invited Margerum to present his idea to the library board on May 22 at noon. “We just don’t have the staff to be out there being recreation aides. We’re trying to focus on our mission, and it’s hard to be distracted.”