For a place so full of sunshine and smiles, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was dominated by shadows and sneers five years ago, when a headstrong administration pushed forward the ambitious, expansive, and direly named Vital Mission Plan to the collective dismay of the institution’s Mission Canyon neighbors, members, and volunteers, meanwhile enraging history buffs by reworking the 78-acre property’s landmark-protected meadow. By the time the powers that be approved it in June 2010, the heated debates ensured that much of that plan was whittled down — not to mention that plenty of restrictions were added — but the bad feelings persisted until that October, when the naming of a new leader prompted hope for the return of sunshine and smiles.
Last Thursday, three years, four months, and 20 days after Steve Windhager took on the garden’s top job, the native Texan plunged a golden shovel into the hilltop home of the John C. Pritzlaff Conservation Center, an 11,500-square-foot facility that will become the educational face of the garden when it opens as soon as fall 2015. Though focused on that specific project — John’s widow, Mary Dell Pritzlaff, even wielded her own shiny spade — the event was really a symbolic celebration of both the present reality (membership back to historic highs, neighbors relatively happy, volunteers dedicated, etc.) and the future, in which the garden will pursue a more efficient, less expansive, and much slower version of the approved plan that focuses less on new buildings and more on the plants themselves.
“It’s not the Getty; it’s not a shining beacon on a hill,” said Windhager earlier in the week, while giving The Santa Barbara Independent a private tour. “It’s a backdrop to our garden space.”
The center, which will be perched on the west side of Mission Canyon Road about where the Gane House was before the Jesusita Fire burned it down in 2009, is the only major building component of this first phase of the garden’s plan, which Windhager has voluntarily scaled back by 53 percent of the approved square footage. His team also strived to better integrate the center’s design into the landscape, burying one-and-a-half floors and opting for earth tones. “It’s not the Getty; it’s not a shining beacon on a hill,” said Windhager earlier in the week, while giving The Santa Barbara Independent a private tour. “It’s a backdrop to our garden space.”
Gardens are what Windhager, whose expertise is in prairie restoration, is all about, from the historic meadow, which, after much work, is now very much like it was during the 1940s and ’50s (at least as far as plans and photographs can tell), to the terraced beds of rare, hard-to-grow native species that will surround the new center. He wants to move the Channel Islands section to the center’s side of the road, as well, where views of the islands and a sunnier climate are better than their current shady spot near the creek, and, in another section, plans to use formal landscaping techniques on California native plants, revealing how well our chaparral species can handle straight lines. “No matter what style of gardening you want to do, you can use California plants,” said Windhager. “There’s more ceanothus used in European gardens than in California, and that’s a shame.” Also on the list of things to cultivate are a new children’s garden (with lots of ethnobotany), a new memorial tribute garden (to house existing and future markers), an extension of the historic stone stairs up the other side of Mission Canyon Road (again making them the main entrance), and more gardens featuring native plants exactly as they grow in the wild — or, as Windhager put it, “what it should have looked like in the 1490s, not just the 1940s.”
Most critically, Windhager took a chain saw to the budget. The first phase will now cost about $14 million rather than the $24 million estimated in the original plan. Of that number, $3 million will go to the gardens, $6 million will be for the building, $3 million will go to the endowment, and $2 million is already being used on the sewage and infrastructure improvements. So far, $9 million has been raised, in donations both massive and tiny, leaving $5 million to go.
That news has former Botanic Garden watchdog Christine Riesenfeld most enthused. “I’m pleased with the progress they’re making, particularly from a financial perspective,” said Riesenfeld, a longtime volunteer who led a volunteer strike during the tumultuous times but returned with the hiring of Windhager, like many others. “They’re focused on fiscal responsibility and getting back to native plants. That’s what it’s all about.” She’s also pleased with changes to the board and staff and reports, “The volunteers seem to be quite happy.”
So are the neighbors, according to attorney Marc Chytilo, a Mission Canyon resident himself who represented the neighborhood during the county hearings. “Steve has been a breath of fresh air when compared to the previous administration, and the community has enjoyed a very positive, productive relationship with him,” said Chytilo, though he is quick to note that this is just phase one, and there could be more debates in the future. In fact, on Monday of this week, Windhager sent Chytilo and others an email with a list of changes he’d like to make to the existing restrictions, including such things as the number of events and how attendance is counted. “Those are issues that the community may have some real concerns about,” said Chytilo. “We’ve understood Steve’s concerns, and I think he understands our concerns, and what we’ve been able to do in the past is find common ground. I have no reason to think we won’t be able to work it out again.”
That’s a whole different tone than a few years ago. “More than just being a good communicator, I’ve tried to be a good listener,” said Windhager, in the sunshine, with a smile. “Everybody that was opposed to us before — they’re on board now.” For those who just love the garden, he promises a very exciting time to come. “Over the next five years,” he said toward the end of the tour, “there’s going to be constantly something new at the garden.”