Protesters gathered Tuesday outside Solvang City Hall to oppose plans to build a European-style plaza, restaurants, hotels, 125 dwellings, and public administration buildings and, in the process, eliminate the Veterans’ Memorial Building. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Solvang’s new mayor, Ryan Toussaint, pledged to shake things up big-time when he ran for office more than a year ago in the land of windmills and æbleskivers. So far, he’s been true to his word.

To generate municipal cash flow and give the Danish-themed village a dramatic makeover, Toussaint, a Solvang native and tech-geek entrepreneur, teamed up with Santa Barbara landlord and developer Ed St. George. At Tuesday’s special City Council meeting, however, St. George’s expansive four-story plans to cure what ails Solvang got an angry earful.

The mixed-use plans ​— ​which include a European-style plaza, restaurants, hotels, 125 dwellings, and public administration buildings ​— ​were blistered by a crowd of about 250 residents, both virtual and in the flesh. They argued that the proposed project would destroy Solvang’s character while eliminating the Veterans’ Memorial Building, where so many had danced, met their spouses, celebrated anniversaries, and played “turkey” bingo.

Bruce Porter, a two-time supervisorial candidate, former school board member, and Desert Storm veteran, castigated the council for even considering a plan that called for the destruction of the veterans’ center, which has been a hub of community life in the Santa Ynez Valley since the Great Depression, when it was built. Replacing it with a room in a new building, said Porter, dishonored the veterans whose graves had been adorned with flags during this past weekend’s
Memorial Day observances.

Speakers cautioned that state laws protected such centers and that the council had no power to take them away. Another expressed outrage that the veterans themselves had not been consulted yet, and others charged that the timing felt suspiciously rushed. The city staff report, meanwhile, explained that the vets’ building faces serious seismic retrofit challenges, for which no funding exists.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the majority of the Solvang City Council, including Mayor Toussaint, opted to continue public discussion of St. George’s plans. Altogether, for the lot across the street from Mission Santa Inés, the plans propose two new hotels (108 rooms in total), 125 new housing units, and 96,000 square feet of new retail space, which is about the size of Nordstrom in downtown Santa Barbara.

Solvang City Councilmember Robert Clarke argues with a protester outside Solvang City Hall.

Toussaint stressed that the process was just now beginning and that the council’s vote constituted an intent only to explore the plans further. He also stressed that the specific proposal had recently emerged out of an economic planning process that’s been the focus of no fewer than four public hearings so far.

Toussaint is an outspoken critic of Solvang’s reliance on “tour bus” tourism, in which large numbers of visitors ​— ​often part of large excursion packages ​— ​show up, eat fast, and leave faster. Since his election, Toussaint has pushed hard to rebrand Solvang ​— ​“Solvang 2.0,” he calls it ​— ​to make it inviting for well-heeled visitors from Los Angeles and elsewhere to stay longer, spend more, and come back for repeated visits.

When Toussaint learned that St. George closed escrow on “the old lumberyard” property next to the Veterans’ Memorial Building ​— ​where St. George has permits to build 45 rental units ​— ​he urged St. George to think about a hotel instead and gave him a copy of “Solvang 2.0” to read. A new hotel would not be enough, replied St. George, telling the mayor, “You need a major change.”

Cue the latest plans: a high-octane mixed-use proposal that St. George has dubbed “Little Copenhagen.” Amid the hotel rooms, offices, and residences, the strategically small shops would cater to the “experiential” appetite of shoppers that cannot be replicated by online retail, said St. George. A consultant estimated the total development would generate nearly $800,000 in various tax revenues so desperately needed by Solvang City Hall.

Since his election, Solvang Mayor Ryan Toussaint has pushed hard to rebrand Solvang ​— ​“Solvang 2.0,” he calls it ​— ​to make it inviting for well-heeled visitors from Los Angeles and elsewhere to stay longer, spend more, and come back for repeated visits, a rebrand referenced on protesters’ signs at Tuesday’s demonstration in front of Solvang City Hall.

As proposed, the project involves eight parcels and seven acres of real estate, requiring the approval of the City of Solvang and the County of Santa Barbara, both major property owners. The development would also displace a small county courtroom, offices for 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, and a sheriff’s substation, which would all be relocated to a new, not-yet-found site.

In an interview before the council meeting, St. George said the project would provide Solvang a much-needed economic boost. “There are 25 million people who hate where they live,” he said. “They can come up here and have a great experience.”

But it would also provide a benefit for residents. “It’s going to be the coolest place to live, ever,” St. George said. “You’re going to wake up in the morning and think, guess what, you’re on a European vacation.”

Protesters hold signs outside of Solvang City Hall.

Many Solvang old-timers begged to differ, and vehemently so. Not only will the vets center be eliminated, they objected, but so would Solvang’s Senior Center, which now serves 500 people. “What about water supply and sewage?” even more wondered. “The traffic problems ​— ​won’t they get worse?”

When plans were unveiled last week, their size and speed galvanized community opposition so much that City Hall opened the comment wider than many public hearings right now. In addition to the virtual squawk box testimony typical of public gatherings in the age of COVID-19, the council welcomes in-person commenters to the hearing.

In light of such matters, Toussaint also delayed any action until further public discussion can take place at an outdoor hearing, perhaps as soon as in the next couple of weeks.

St. George had been warned that such opposition might arise. “I’ve been a developer in Santa Barbara,” he joked. “You can’t make me nervous.” But given the heat of Tuesday night’s hearing, St. George may have met his dragon and might need to recalibrate his plans.

None of the speakers, incidentally, took exception to St. George building what he could on the “old lumber yard” property he just purchased. If all else were to fail, he noted, he could still build the 45 rental units.

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