A proposal to construct a temporary art village out of 13 storage containers and a modified Airstream trailer in Santa Barbara’s so-called Funk Zone got an enthusiastic kiss on both cheeks Monday evening from members of the city’s normally staid Architectural Board of Review (ABR). But such rave reviews will probably have little effect on the proposal’s ultimate fate. The ABR, as its members noted, focuses exclusively on aesthetic issues; the concerns threatening to hog-tie what’s billed as the Funk Zone Arts Village are far more functional and intractable in nature.
ABR member Kirk Gradin praised the proposal — put forth by developer Neil Dipaola of Mesa Lane Partners — as a “fabulous idea,” adding, “I’m personally very much in favor of it.” But in the same breath, Gradin also acknowledged the idea “breaks all the rules.” And for both Dipaola and city staff, therein lies the rub. Dipaola recently bought the 1.7-acre property by Gray and Mason streets, which had been used as industrial warehouse space by cabinetmakers, surfboard shapers, and sculptors. Currently, however, the land is abandoned and functions, in the words of one ABR member, as “a blighted asphalt lot.”
Dipaola has big plans for a four-story mixed-use project one day — hotel, rental housing, commercial and art space — but in the next three to four years, he’s hoping to install the village. That, his representatives told the ABR, would act as an antidote to the gentrification now sweeping the Funk Zone, as wineries — and the tsunami of rent increases they’ve brought with them — chase out the artists who made the neighborhood “funky” in the first place. Because the storage containers aren’t buildings per se, Dipaola had hoped his village would not need the host of permits City Hall typically requires. To date, however, city officials have seen otherwise.
Where Dipaola hoped to install porta-potties to service the 20-plus artists, it appears City Hall will now require him to hook up to the city’s sewer system. If Public Works has its way, he could have to install some sidewalk. And in deference to federal emergency planning guidelines, Dipaola may need to strap down the containers in case of earthquakes, while simultaneously elevating them in case of floods.
Those make-or-break issues were not on the table during ABR deliberations. There, Dipaola lieutenant Tony Tomasello sought to entrance the boardmembers with the mission of the temporary arts project, which he said was designed to “celebrate the industrial,” “inspire community,” and “foster the arts.” More than 120 individuals submitted applications to rent work space, he said, and more than 20 have been selected. Two of those, it should be noted, are writers for The Santa Barbara Independent, Ethan Stewart and Charles Donelan.
The majority of those speaking or submitting letters extolled the virtues of creating an affordable space for Santa Barbara artists and an area where artists and the public could interact. Under Dipaola’s scheme, arts village residents would be required to host public hours two times a month, but they would not be allowed to sell from the containers or live in them.
The most intense opposition has come from residents of the condominiums nearby. Aaron Goldschmidt, for example, argued that the traffic and parking impacts to existing residents need to be better addressed. He also suggested that the human activity generated by the village would create a false and misleading baseline if and when Dipoala’s long-term development plans were subjected to the scrutiny of environmental review. Neighbor June O’Rourke warned that the project would attract an undesirable element to the neighborhood and urged supporters “to get over their giddiness about the artists element and the funky design.”
In private conversation, Dipaola has made it clear his proposed arts village can absorb only so much in additional costs. What that tipping point is remains to be seen, but it’s all but certain that no artists will be occupying the containers by this October as he had hoped. ABR Chair Paul Zink praised Dipaola’s plans as “a fun project,” but he warned the developer he’d need to be willing to spend more money. “It’s not too expensive,” he said. “This isn’t the county fair grounds, and you won’t be leaving in two weeks.”