The Back Story of Ortega Park’s Grant Loss

Public Controversy Accompanied Attempt to Renovate Park

Mural entitled "Maiz" painted at Ortega Park by Manuel Unzueta. | Credit: Courtesy

The Independent’s report “Ortega Park Renovation Grant Denied” was a brief account as to why the $8.5 million grant application to the State Parks Department was not considered for funding. The report stated that the preservation of the iconic Chicano murals became a focal point impacting the grant application and the city’s legislative process.

All of this might have been avoided if the city would have approached the public in the summer of 2020, when the state issued the notice of funding availability. This is when a firm relationship with neighborhood residents to support the grant application could have been established. Instead, the city relied on its 2018 outreach efforts to make the case that neighborhood input was completed. It was during those 2018 meetings that I asked what the fate of the murals would be? I was told that the preservation of the murals would be discussed later. Well later became November 2020, when the public was told that all the murals would be demolished. 

This is when the Ortega Park Mural Rescue Committee took shape with the guidance of local public art experts and other renowned arts experts throughout California and the Southwest. This support and a $5,000 grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara, that produced bilingual neighborhood outreach, a petition to save all the murals with over 1,000 signatures and a video documentary, along with a community rally with over 200 people in attendance, proved that the 2018 outreach effort by the city was not enough to demonstrate community input was sufficient.

With the grant application hanging in the balance, the city waited until the summer of 2021 to finally broker a meeting to discuss the fate of the murals, some murals have lived in Ortega Park since 1979. But the wait was filled with bureaucracy, false accusations, and a complete breakdown of communication between city staff, the artists and community organizers. A line in the sand was drawn over full preservation of every mural versus an approved mural plan that would align with the $8.5 million grant application was on the table. 

Under a cloud of exhaustion and controversy, a mural plan was hashed out between both sides and by July 2021, the needed legislative approvals were in place. The public was told that the grant approval would be announced at the end of the summer. However, the outcome was finally announced to City Council on December 13 via email with no formal public announcement. 

My gut told me to follow up with the city before the year ended knowing that earlier in the month Lompoc and Santa Maria had received significant State Parks grants from a separate pot of money. On January 4, I finally received confirmation from the city that the grant was denied. I then notified over 200 community stakeholders within the One Community Bridge Project network and heard genuine disappointment that the grant to fix up the park was denied. I’m also hearing a lot of speculation as to how the overall application process was managed. 

Looking forward, the neighborhood needs District 1 City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez to provide leadership so residents can work effectively with the city. We want to ensure that Ortega Park becomes a historic landmark and restored as a robust space for cultural activities that will be enjoyed by all of Santa Barbara.

Mark Moses Alvarado is director of One Community Bridge Project.

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