Left to right: SB Public Library Foundation Director Lauren Trujillo, Public Library Foundation Campaign Cabinet Co-Chair Jim Jackson, Mayor Randy Rowse, Library Director Jessica Cadiente, Councilmember Eric Friedman, Anne Towbes, Public Library Foundation Board President Anne Howard, Public Library Foundation Campaign Cabinet Co-Chair Janet Garufis, City Administrator Rebecca Bjork | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Construction officially commenced on downtown Santa Barbara’s newest gem — the Central Library’s $5.4 million Michael Towbes Plaza, funded in a public-private sponsorship between the city and the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation — at a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday featuring the major players in realizing a project that’s been a city priority for years.

The dusty, weed-grown, chain-link-fenced plaza was bustling with foundation boardmembers, city councilmembers, and library donors, all excited to see what will soon become a 10,000-square-foot “fully-programmable” public space in about 18 months.

Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation Board President Anne Howard described how this project — and upcoming projects like the teen center, staff space, and renovated rooftop patio — display the library and foundation’s dedication to providing “more than just books.” In all, the set of projects total $9.3 million, coming from the foundation and from public sources, such as Measure C and the city’s general fund.

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez and a rendering of the S.B. Central Library’s Michael Towbes Plaza. | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

“We’re building a new plaza,” she said, “but what is happening in the process is we’re building a community.”

Jim Jackson and Janet Garufis — co-chairs of the Public Library Foundation Campaign Cabinet, which helped raise nearly half the money for the project — spoke about the unique “public-private” funding partnership. Jackson thanked the private donors, campaign volunteers, and the “government representatives who shared a vision and made it a priority” to finalize the project. Several councilmembers, including Oscar Gutierrez, Mike Jordan, Eric Friedman, and Mayor Randy Rowse, attended the ceremony.

The plaza will be the new centerpiece of the Downtown Arts District, Jackson said, and will be home to open-air events, festivals, movie nights, and more. It will also be the first public space downtown to take the name of local philanthropist Michael Towbes, who died in 2017. 

Councilmember Friedman — who was on the library board for 10 years before serving as the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation’s board president from 2014 to 2017 — said naming the space the Michael Towbes Plaza was “a great way to honor someone that’s done so much good in the community.”

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Anne Towbes also spoke at the event, saying her husband would have been proud to see the project come to fruition. “The plaza represents so much of what made Michael tick,” she said, adding that he was a lifelong learner and voracious reader, with piles of books always around. “You should have seen his desk at home,” Towbes said with a laugh.

Library Director Jessica Cadiente worked alongside Library Foundation Board President Howard and Director Lauren Trujillo to make the project happen, and she said she remembered “2,149 days ago” when she attended her first city meeting about the library plaza.

Initial plans started even further back, with the plaza on the city’s radar since 2011. In late March 2022, when the City Council unanimously approved the construction contract, Cadiente said it was “the happiest day of her career” in Santa Barbara to be part of creating “a cultural hub” in the heart of downtown.

Construction will include three projects — the plaza, a new ADA-compliant elevator, and renovated staff space — and is estimated to be completed by fall of 2023.

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