The dream of opening a year-round arts complex at the site of the Santa Barbara Solstice Parade workshop – with a decorative steel gate symbolizing summer solstice at one entrance, and at the other a companion gate representing the winter solstice – has been deferred due to the discovery of underground contaminants.
Solstice organizers had nearly completed the approval process for remodeling the city-owned property at 631 Garden St. – including final blessings from the Historic Landmarks Commission – and were hoping to begin construction right after the 2008 Solstice Parade. But then they got the first intimations that there might be a problem.
Now, according to Brian Bosse, the city’s supervisor of redevelopment, it could be “one to two years” before the hazardous materials under the building are assessed and remediated. “That’s what we’re shooting for,” he said. The contaminants are presumed to be left over from the years when the site served as the fueling station for the city’s motor pool, from early in the 20th century until 1972. After that, the city’s recycling center operated there; more recently it’s been used for parking.
The idea was – and still is – that Solstice would continue to dominate the space for two months of the year, but the rest of the year it would be used as, among other things, a set-building space, which Santa Barbara lacks despite its wealth of theaters. Just last month, said Solstice director Claudia Bratton, the Santa Barbara Opera wanted to use the space to put sets together. It could also be used for costuming and rehearsals. “So many arts groups need inexpensive rehearsal space,” Bratton said. “Look at Center Stage. No rehearsal space!”
In addition, the space could host after-school arts programs and nonprofits needing a place for their boards to meet. The city would charge nominal rent; in fact it was City Administrator Jim Armstrong who suggested that it be used this way, Bratton said. Solstice would manage the building and pay operating costs, as well as pay $100,000 toward improvements to the property. The Redevelopment Agency would contribute the remainder, amounting to approximately $1 million.
The fly in the ointment surfaced last year as the city was conducting the final testing on 11 underground monitoring wells that had been installed since 1988, when the city began cleaning up the site. As part of that cleansing, which continued until 2003, the city removed six underground storage tanks along with 410 yards of soil contaminated with fuel, oil, and solvents. It continued to monitor and then, in 2006, injected 2,900 pounds of oxygen-releasing compound to treat “what was thought to be the remaining water and subsurface contamination,” said Bosse. “The readings were all below applicable standards. So we thought, ‘Great, let’s start doing the design [for the Community Arts Building],’ and toward the end of the design the idea was to get the site completely closed out with the County Fire Prevention Division. So we submitted a plan for final testing and monitoring to achieve no-further-action status and, during that testing, the consultant found additional site contamination.”
Bosse would not elaborate on the concentration of contaminants specified in a final report in February, except to say that “they were not high numbers.” Bosse said that the report “probably would not be made public.” (The Independent plans to file a public records request next week to obtain that information.)
Some members of the arts community wondered aloud if the recently built housing complex next door, with its three-story garage situated downhill from the 631 Garden St. property, was also contaminated. There are apparently no monitoring wells on that property.
Meanwhile, as preparations for the Solstice Parade get underway, float-builders as well as Solstice administrators and staff are banished from the building’s bathrooms and storerooms, which are considered more potentially hazardous than the open spaces. That’s partly because of the fresh air factor and partly because no soil was removed from the area under the building.
“We’re about creativity and that’s our middle name,” Bratton commented. “We have to figure out how to make things work.”