A project that has been a city dream for more than a decade — the Santa Barbara Central Library Renovation Project, including its 10,000-square-foot plaza with space for festivals, events, and more — was unanimously approved by City Council on Tuesday.
The $9.3 million construction contract with Nationwide Contracting Services, a company from Los Angeles, was the culmination of years of effort, with initial planning starting in 2011, according to Library Director Jessica Cadiente. It also marked another successful public-private collaborative funding effort, with the Santa Barbara Library Foundation raising $5 million toward the project. The remaining $4.3 million will come out of the city’s coffers through Measure C and general funds.
“This is probably the happiest day in my career here at the city of Santa Barbara,” Cadiente said. The project received final design approval in January 2020, but the pandemic put everything on a two-year pause. Now with the contract approved, construction is set to begin as early as July 2022.
“As you can imagine, we are on the precipice of creating a cultural campus, as we are the heart of the arts district,” Cadiente said.
Cadiente hopes the new space, to be named Michael Towbes Library Plaza in honor of the renowned local philanthropist, will serve as a “cultural hub” of the Historic Arts District, nestled between the Courthouse, the Museum of Art, and the Granada, Arlington, and Lobero theaters. The plaza will be fully programmable for school visits, makers’ markets, art installations, and movie nights, she said, and will be able to hold up to 1,200 people.
Jim Jackson, Santa Barbara Library Foundation Boardmember and Co-Chair of the Public Library Foundation Campaign Cabinet, who helped raise nearly half the money, was there to present Cadiente with the oversized multimillion-dollar check.
“I think this project really stands to make Santa Barbara a star of how downtowns can be revitalized, and how they can draw people in the right way: with educational ideas, children’s programs, festivals, things that will make the city a place to go and spend time downtown, ” Jackson said.
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The contract would also include renovations to the lower-level staff area of the library and a new ADA-compliant elevator to make the building more accessible to wheelchair users.
Several councilmembers expressed a deep personal connection with the project and with the library itself as a hub for the community.
“I spent every day of high school after school at the library, up on the roof there when it used to be open,” Councilmember Kristen Sneddon said. “It’s a very special place to me.”
Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking home, said she learned how to read in English in a city library, where the local librarian would give her lessons after school. In high school, she said the Central Library was her safe haven, a place she found peace and quiet and eventually where she would fill out college applications.
Another councilmember, Eric Friedman, recounted his time serving on the city’s library advisory board in 2007. He said he remembers an architect who drew up a schematic of “what was possible” with the library and asked it be placed on the agenda. “We put it on, and ever since then, we had a regular update, for all those years, on the progress on it, and eventually it’s come to fruition,” Friedman said. “I’m now old enough to officially say that I’ve made it through the city’s planning process.”
The Central Library and its plaza have been uninviting for the past few years, with chain-link fences surrounding a barren concrete-and-dirt space, but with construction set to begin soon, Friedman said the library will once again be the centerpiece to the downtown area, along with De la Guerra Plaza and the Courthouse. “There was this missing middle, and now we have that, so our community is much better off,” he said.