Construction equipment parked along the curb at Ortega Park upset community members who felt the site was being used as a "dumping ground." | Credit: Andi Garcia

Some Eastside Santa Barbara residents visiting Ortega Park last week were shocked to find debris and construction equipment — heavy machinery, rows of pipes, cones, and piles of wood, metal, and tools — strewn along the curbs surrounding the park on Salsipuedes and Cota streets.

One group, at the park for a community meeting to plan for the upcoming Día de los Muertos celebration, reached out to the city to ask why the streets were being used as a “dumping ground” for construction in the area.

Piping, construction materials, and debris were left by construction crews outside Ortega Park. The work is due to a Desal Link Pipeline project, which will increase access to desalinated water to community residents. | Credit: Andi Garcia

“We understand the necessity of growth and upgrades and building for a better community, and we appreciate the motivation,” wrote Andi Garcia, an Eastside resident, community activist, and one of the organizers behind the Occupy Ortega Park events. “However, it has now been months that Salsipuedes and Cota Streets in front of Ortega Park have been turned into a staging area for all the work being done for mid-city.”

In the letter sent to the City Council, Mayor Randy Rowse, and the Public Works Department, Garcia provided photos and described “huge tractors, mounds of dirt and gravel, large blue pipes” and piles of garbage left by city paid contractors from Toro Engineering. “We found the debris to be quite hazardous,” she wrote. “It does not appear that these contractors are being mindful of how they are handling this project that is right smack in the middle of a family community and park.”

The mess, she said, came as a surprise. Although the city had been accused of failing to reach out to the Eastside community before — like when historic murals at Ortega Park were left out of the original plans to update the park in 2021, or when the city decided to downsize the Yanonali Community Garden — Garcia said there has been some progress with city staff working alongside the community. Recently, the Parks and Recreation department started providing trash receptacles at the park and set up a small storage shed for Occupy Ortega Park organizers to keep tables and chairs for weekend events.

“We appreciate it,” she said, adding that the city has been supportive of efforts to “utilize the park for community engagement events” and the preservation of the arts culture in the park, ever since the wave of community support to save the murals last year. The latest version of the Ortega Park Master Plan has 12 of the murals being either “reenvisioned, re-created,” or relocated in new areas throughout the park.

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The construction near the park turned out to be part of the city’s Desal Link Pipeline project, according to Supervising Engineer Carson Wollert. The project is intended to extend the existing pipeline to connect the Cater Water Treatment Plant to the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant on Yanonali Street, starting at the intersection of Mission and Garden Streets and working toward Yanonali.

In a response to Garcia’s letter, Wollert wrote that the materials and debris were located near Ortega because that is where the crews are currently working. “The contractor is making good progress on the pipeline installation and is continuing to progress down Calle Cesar Chavez,” he wrote. “This will mean that the materials stored will move further down the street as well, or be used during installation.”

The bulk of materials are being stored in the parking lot of the former Sears building near La Cumbre, he said, and since hearing from the community, “city staff has followed up with the contractor and the debris has been cleaned up and moved.”

The project will increase access to desalinated water to many more community residents, he said, and construction could extend through October.  The city did notify neighborhood residents prior to construction, with handouts to local businesses and signage throughout the area, but Wollert told the Independent that the messages from concerned neighbors showed some room for improvement.

“We’re trying to do a better job of signage,” he said, “but sadly we need this equipment.”

Since last week, social media posts have shown an improvement at the site: big equipment is now parked at the corners of the street, materials are now more organized, and trash has been removed from the area. 

Wollert says movable signs will be posted daily to inform neighbors of current progress and construction schedules, and more information about the Desal Link Project can be found on the city website.

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