About two dozen or so folks gathered in Farrand Hall at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on Thursday night to learn about changes to the Mission Canyon institution’s expansion and renovation plan, which had sparked controversy and criticism in its original form. Based on that feedback, as well as input from government committees and soul-searching by the board of directors, the museum scaled back the increased building area by about 10,000 square feet, decided to preserve all of the historic buildings, and will be moving forward in three separate phases over the next couple decades.

“It’s not just about building more, it’s about building better,” said the museum’s new head, Luke Swetland, who took over the plan when longtime director Karl Hutterer retired this year. He explained that, while the “legacy” buildings will remain, they will be enhanced with all of the modern systems available, and the exhibits will be “freshened” up. In so doing, the hope, said Swetland is to give visitors an experience that is “comfortably familiar and yet delightfully new.”

Phase One, expected to take seven to 10 years, including about 12 to 18 months of actual construction, will include the restoring of all the historic buildings, the demolition of the current bathrooms and a connected hall that’s not historic, the moving of the MacVeagh House to the museum’s residential parcel across the street, and the building of a new administration building near the parking lot. Phases Two and Three would roll out over the next 20 or so years, and include some more buildings, such as the Discovery Center, which will house a permanent butterfly exhibit, and a new collections building. Altogether, the museum will be more open and airy than was initially proposed, in fact, even more than it is now.

To achieve these goals, the museum’s planning consultant, Suzanne Elledge, has advocated for the creation of a “Specific Plan,” which would set all of their ideas into stone with the City of Santa Barbara even though some of them won’t happen for decades. The plan would also include traffic, fire safety, and special event permissions, and retain the 196,000 maximum visitation number as a benchmark to be allowed once every five years. But with the museum sailing closer to 150,000 visitors even on busy years, Swetland said that the challenge will be to maintain that rather than grow toward the museum’s busiest year ever.

The audience seemed happy to hear of the changes, though it’s clear some neighbors are probably still going to complain about the impacts associated with excavation of underground storage areas, of construction in general, of traffic on busy days, and of wildfire evacuation safety. There’s a meeting for close neighbors in April to cover some of those concerns, and Swetland hopes to submit the plan for conceptual approval as soon as July 2013.


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