Miracle on San Andres Street
by Billy Goodnick
Note: There is a photo essay of this project at my Flickr site
It took about ten years, but a minor miracle has occurred in Santa Barbara's Westside neighborhood. A sliver of open space has been wedged into a densely packed residential area. In a built-out town like this, that's a big deal.
Before December 2008, if you took the ten-block walk down San Andres St., between Mission and Carrillo, you would have been surrounded by a continuous parade of houses, apartments and commercial buildings. If you take that same walk today, prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise when you reach E. Victoria. There's a new "pocket park" gracing the east side of the street. It's not like any park you've seen.
I lived a block from the eventual site of this park shortly after I moved to Santa Barbara in the mid-70s. The Westside was a good fit for me after living in the sprawling San Fernando Valley for most of my youth. My new neighborhood felt like an insulated village within the city, close to downtown but with a character of its own. I had all the basics: supermarket, medical clinic, hardware store, bakery, barber; you get the idea.
The miracle of which I write has to do with creating new public open space in a crowded neighborhood, then imbuing that space with a spirit of environmental awareness, imagination and art. Even more mind-boggling is how two privately owned parcels and an unused street right-of-way could be located in just the right place, then be acquired and "grafted" onto an existing park.
A Park by Any Other Name...
This little slice of paradise doesn't have its own name. Within the Parks and Recreation Department, it's called the "Bohnett Park Expansion Project." Someone needs to come up with something better-contest, Ed? The reason for the name is that the new facility is, indeed,
connected to the original Bohnett Park that sits in the former flood plain of Mission Creek. What is now the back of the park was once the bank of the original creek, which was channelized further east after the construction of the freeway.
It is the influence of the remnant creek that gives Bohnett Park, and now the new project, their woodsy, native character. In fact, the impetus for the design came from the idea of bringing a glimpse of nature to people on the busy commercial street just up the bank.
Why a House?
Capturing the essence of the new park requires a bit of pretending. You'll need to pretend that the structure that dominates the park is a working-class craftsman style house, when actually it's a lot of hollow steel tubing arranged to look like a porch, trellis, gable roof and fireplace. You'll be expected to pretend that the sinuous tongue of turquoise rubber chips is a creek that flows from the house and through the park.
When you encounter the exquisitely crafted miniature bronze dock, dory, and treasure chest along the "creek" or the mine tunnel, railroad tracks and "Mr. Toad's doorway" set into sandstone boulders, you'll need to engage your imagination. That's what the students from Harding School did at the December 2008 ribbon cutting, concocting legends to explain the unusual art that is scattered through the park.
Speaking of Harding School kids, about a dozen of them took part in a summer art and education workshop co-sponsored by the City and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Working with the talented artist and teacher, Tina Villadolid, these kids studied the ecology of local creeks and the design concepts behind Persian art. Then they designed and glazed ceramic tiles that now depict the decorative tile "rug" in the house's "living room." Their artwork depicts the flora and fauna that are living in the creek below.
That's a Park?
This is not your typical city park. In fact, I'm still not sure how we made it to the finish line. When I received the assignment to develop a design for this new space,
all I knew for sure was that I wanted to bring the presence of Old Mission Creek to the attention of locals who were passing along this busy urban corridor. And I need to give myself credit for hiring Van Atta Associates (VAA), local landscape architects with a reputation for thoughtful, artistic, environmentally sensitive and creative designs.
The idea of building a park that mimicked many of the neighborhood residences was the brainchild of Lane Goodkind, who was my project manager at VAA. He had a generous conceptual design budget that allowed him to do some research and dreaming before getting into the nitty gritty. After offering my thoughts about the significance of the creek, he shared a fun sketch of a house sitting in the middle of the lot, surrounded by trees, with a creek running right through the house. Something like this…
Knowing that the Westside is the home of many low income families living in crowded homes, he declared, "This will be the house that many in the neighborhood will never own." Perhaps a bit of an overstatement, but I appreciated the symbolism and saw the opportunity to create a unique, visually playful space for the neighborhood.
The first round of drawings were warmly received by the neighborhood advisory committee. They loved the unique sense of place that would be created. One attendee appeared choked up, saying, "It's wonderful that you would do something like this in our neighborhood."
Maybe you can come by for a visit and let me know what you think? What I'm really hoping for is a few respectful, mature locals to "adopt" the park and make it part of their daily routine. "Ownership" is what keeps parks from becoming a magnet for bad behavior.
It's a great place to let the kids explore. There's also an active playground just down the steps in the original Bohnett Park.
A few acknowledgments are in order: Lynda Bohnett was my point of contact for a generous donation from the very extended Bohnett family - they donated $27,000 to fund all of the children's art. I mentioned Tina's role in the tile rug project. The bronzes are not to be believed-wear something loose fitting, because you'll be down on your knees absorbing the playful detailing of Michael McMillen's achievement. McMillen is an artist of international renown, working in both miniature scale and creating environmental installations in galleries and museums.
Though Lane Goodkind and Susan Van Atta got the project rolling, Lane left SVA to start his own firm. The project was put in the very capable hands of Guillermo Gonzalez who brought his own brilliance to the design and filling in all the details.
My thanks also go to the Public Works Engineering staff who made sure everything we conceived would be buildable (we had some pretty goofy ideas), so here's a shout out to John Schoof, Joshua Haggmark, Adam Hendel and our cool, calm, collected and fierce inspector, Linda West. Lastly, Keven Strasburg, who has worked for me for the past few years, kept some particularly nasty surprises from marring the final product.
I've been involved in a broad range of projects in the past 21 years, including the beachside skateboard park, the north-of-Cabrillo expansion of Chase Palm Park, face-lifts for Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden and lots of playgrounds. But the Bohnett Park expansion just might be my favorite. Now would someone please come up with a name for the place?
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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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