A little more than a month after artist Herb Parker finished building his labyrinth of redwood logs, sod, and native plants on the historic meadow of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the house-sized art installation started to lean, and the Garden was forced to partially rebuild the earthen maze to make it structurally sound and safe for visitors.
Garden spokesperson Nancy Johnson says that the situation was noticed by Garden officials two weeks ago, but the County of Santa Barbara – which issued the building permit on April 8, but never signed off on a post-construction inspection – did not learn of the predicament until a member of the public called 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s office. The county sent out an inspector on July 13, realized that the structure had been built without the required inspections, and began working with the Garden to remedy the problem, which involves more bracing for both the footing and the walls.
“It was not a major thing,” said county building official Mike Zimmer. “We didn’t really shut them down.” He explained that the Garden simply was not allowed to have anyone in the structure until the corrections are made. “We’re trying to work with them so they can move on very quickly,” said Zimmer.
On that sequence of events, everyone agrees. What’s less clear is whether the Garden acted properly when the artist Herb Parker – who began installing the maze in mid-May, after the Jesusita Fire fizzled out – finished the project in early June. According to the Garden’s Johnson, “As soon as we thought the structure was done, we invited the building department out for an inspection.” She said they never came. The county, meanwhile, denies ever being notified. “They failed to do that,” said Zimmer. “No one ever officially called us and said, ‘We’re ready for inspection.'”
Another question the community is asking is whether someone from the Garden or the county should have realized from the get-go that the architectural plans didn’t provide adequate support. “The planners and safety people should have seen that the ton of sod and plants would be too heavy for the rebar and that it was going to cave in,” said Paulina Conn, a frequent critic of the Botanic Garden who believes the county is giving the Garden special treatment. “If you have a 10-foot pole, and it’s only in the ground two to three feet, and you put a load on top of that, those poles are going to wiggle and waggle and splay out. Even a layman can see that.” Conn is among the many who opposed the labyrinth to begin with, wondering what a 40-foot long, 30-foot wide, 15-foot tall structure topped with a living roof was doing in the Botanic Garden at all, but especially in a meadow designated an historic landmark.
The leaning labyrinth is just the latest in a series of public snafus for the Botanic Garden, which is currently enduring a strike by more than 60 volunteers, who are refusing to work because of multiple disagreements with the administration, particularly director Ed Schneider and the board of trustees. The Garden was also hit hard by the Jesusita Fire. It’s administration is currently pushing forward a controversial “Vital Mission Plan” that involves expanding and new construction. That plan goes before the county’s Planning Commission on August 5, and is sure to be a very public and contentious battle, as many neighbors are worried about the Garden’s trajectory.
Lawyer Marc Chytilo, whose group Friends of Mission Canyon is opposed to the plan, sees this latest maze matter as indicative of the Garden’s ongoing problems. “It’s another example of the Garden not paying attention to the rules of the game and just doing what they want, ” he explained, “and, lo and behold, doing it badly, and having to correct it in the future.”
Neighborhood attacks aside, the labyrinth, which is scheduled to sit in the meadow for two years, should be re-opened very soon, according to Johnson. “All the corrections have been made,” she said. “We just need some fresh sod for the roof to replace the piece we took off.” After that, all that stands in the way of Herb Parker’s labyrinth being open again to the public is the county’s permission.