Wednesday, December 5, 2007

City fast-tracks children's museum


After a tremendous outpouring of community support, Santa Barbara city leaders voted unanimously to fast track, to an extent, a proposal to build a children’s museum on lower State Street.
Dozens of community leaders, teachers and parents rose to voice their support for the museum concept at yesterday’s City Council meeting, a project that has been in the works for several years.
In response, the Council decided to forgo the Request for Proposals (RFP) process in favor of offering exclusive negotiating rights to the Santa Barbara Children’s Museum for developing the parcel at 125 State St.

“I think even if we put a RFP out, I don’t think we would find any other organization with as much community support,” Councilmember Helene Schneider said. “…Why wait another three or four months to move forward?”
Following the unanimous vote, Sheila Cushman, executive director of the museum board, left the Council Chambers visibly excited.
“Honestly, I’m shaking,” she said.
Paul Selwyn, president of the board, joined in her enthusiastic reaction, but said he wasn’t surprised by the Council’s decision.
“We felt that once they saw the outpouring of community support, they would recognize that this is what the community wants,” Selwyn said. “…There is really no need to go through a prolonged process. It will only delay this further.”
Cushman, Selwyn and a group of dedicated board members approached the Council four months ago after city staff recommended looking into developing the site — located across the tracks from the railroad station and next to the vacant Californian hotel.
However, the history of the proposed children’s museum dates back years before that, when the Council and museum board envisioned the project next to the Granada Theater garage.
After delays with the garage, “that kind of got pushed aside,” Selwyn said. So when city staff came to Cushman and Selwyn with the State Street site, they nearly jumped out of their seats.
“Our board wholeheartedly agrees with your staff that this would be a great location for a children’s museum,” Cushman told the Council yesterday, describing the site as easily accessible and centered in a high-traffic tourist zone.
When they first proposed developing the State Street parcel to city leaders in July, many members of the Council expressed hesitance about the level of community support behind the project, asking them to return with a display of that support.
With 1,000 signatures from residents and letters of support from community leaders and children from McKinley Elementary School, the museum board did just that.
“I can’t tell you how impressed I am by this,” Councilmember Barnwell said. “It’s unparalleled in my history to see such a cadre of the big and the small, the whole community.”
Representatives from First 5 Santa Barbara, UCSB, Fund for Santa Barbara, Junior League of Santa Barbara, Orfalea Foundation, Hutton Foundation, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the County Office of Education, and many other organizations spoke in person at the Council Chambers yesterday, many highlighting future plans for the museum.
“We want to have outreach programs,” said Gordon Auchincloss, a board member, county senior deputy district attorney and volunteer Teen Court judge. “We want to have programs that target at-risk youth.”
Paula Lopez, a board member, mother of three, Keyt anchor and ninth generation Santa Barbaran, said the Council’s vote will send a powerful message to the children of the community that they come first. She also pointed out that the museum will offer parenting classes and volunteer opportunities to local teens.
With her twin, 9-month-old children, Ethan and Madeline, in her arms, Joni Kelly said she envisions the museum as a fun, interactive and dynamic facility.
“I’ve really found that Santa Barbara is a great place to live and to raise a family,” Kelly told the Council. “But we really don’t have anything that we can call our own. … By the time the museum is built, these guys will be the very first patrons.”
Before the design process and construction begins, however, city staff still needs to hash out a few issues with parking requirements for a nearby visitor center annex and potential Caltrans constraints.
“I hope dearly you will be able to find flexibility in whatever we are bound by here,” Councilmember Iya Falcone said.
City attorney Steve Wiley characterized the development issues as “very manageable.” City staff workers will examine development issues and plan to come back to the Council to vote on an exclusive negotiating agreement with the museum board for a long-term lease by early January.
As far as the museum board, Selwyn said they plan to get started on fundraising.
“We will raise the money and do the hard work,” he told the Council. “…Give us the lot, give us the time, and we will show you the money.”

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