A few years ago, any discussion about the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and its controversial “Vital Mission Plan” was full of hostility and short on smiles. On Monday, at a hearing of the county’s Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission, it was clear how much times have changed. Save for a few minor quibbles about specifics of the garden’s “cultural landscape plan,” there was nothing but support for the Mission Canyon institution and its new direction under Steve Windhager, who was hired in 2010 and has worked ever since to smooth over relations with neighbors. Said Commissioner Lansing Duncan on Monday, “I congratulate the garden for coming so far.”
Monday’s presentation was focused on how to bring the garden’s original acreage back to what it looked like in the early 1950s. That may mean removing three redwood trees that are obstructing views, moving the Japanese teahouse, replanting the meadow with a mix of native bunch grasses and wildflowers, and better hiding benches. But those changes — welcomed on Monday by both Paulina Conn and Kellam de Forest, the two loudest critics of the previous garden administration — are just a fraction of what Windhager has been working on, and he hopes to bring a revamped and reduced Vital Mission Plan to county decision-makers later this year, even though that plan was already approved in 2009.
“I have done my very best in the last two years to integrate community input into this plan and have worked closely with everyone I can find,” said Windhager, whose “tweaks” will reduce the building footprint by 3,000 square feet, expand space for collections, and increase phasing so that construction is only started when necessary. “We’re 86 years old now,” said Windhager of the garden, “and this will cover us for the next 86 years.” Along with Conn and de Forest, attorney and Mission Canyon resident Marc Chytilo is upbeat about the new momentum. Though noting that the “proof is in the pudding” of what’s presented later this year, Chytilo explained, “We are all very hopeful the nightmare is over.”