Despite praises, critics say changes are nothing more than ‘window dressing’

Fresh from a 60-day hiatus, Westmont College unveiled its newest campus development plans last week that depart from the old institutional look and incorporate a sustainable architecture approach that melds traditional and contemporary disciplines.

By shifting academic precincts closer to the center of campus, separating and lowering the height of buildings and softening the architecture, school officials said confidently that the new look minimizes impacts to the greater residential neighborhood.

“We wanted to make sure that anything we did was a lot more environmentally sensitive,” said architect David VanHoy, whom Westmont hired in late May to bring a local perspective to the project. “Featuring the land and preserving that natural setting of the campus I think was paramount. The Westmont property is now the star of the show.”

By moving away from a philosophy where the buildings defined the campus, the college’s senior officials admitted they could finally see Westmont in an entirely new way. “One of the earliest comments made by [landscape architect] Susan Van Atta was, ‘well, what is the theme of this project?’” said Ron Cronk, Westmont’s vice president of finance. “We didn’t realize until now how crucial the gardens were as part of the campus experience.”

Still, architects plan to fill up a lot of undeveloped space. Designs still ask to double the size of campus, with 350,000 square feet of new buildings, about 20,000 less than what was first requested in 2000.

On September 7, in an hour-long PowerPoint presentation in Westmont’s Page Hall, VanHoy delivered a broad look at the overall multi-hundred-million campus update and provided detailed descriptions for the first phase of construction.

The initial phase will involve an estimated two and a half years of work to add 150,000 square feet of buildings – Adams Center, Winter Hall, chapel/auditorium, a dormitory, the dining commons addition and the observatory.

Each new structure differs distinctly from original designs in scale and form. For instance, Winter Hall (the math and science building) is now a low-lying nod to modernism, with muted walls and wide swaths of window space. All of this is under a rangy flat roof that’s capped with green plantings – “the stuff you see growing on rocks,” VanHoy said. The roof has overhangs on every side that seem to serve as a shady canopy and further camouflage the building in its natural surroundings. Flanking the periphery of the structure is a serpentine wall made out of Santa Barbara sandstone that undoubtedly gives the setting some local authenticity.

Winter Hall is one of six buildings in one of Westmont’s small academic centers. One of the goals of the schools, initially, had been to fulfill what they called the “liberal arts experience.” By placing new buildings in one large cluster, administrators had hoped to create an academic setting where students of varying educational disciplines could exchange ideas.

Separating buildings and placing them in other parts of the campus could have ruined that goal. But still, “we have not lost that,” Cronk said. “By our willingness to move some structures, it opened up the core of the academic campus in a more distributed way. In the long run, the sense of the place will be learning distributed gardens to gardens.”

One of the chief goals in the redesign was to bring sustainability to the project. The planted roofs fit into this concept; so does the planting of deciduous trees to control the temperature of the classrooms. (In summer months, the leaves block the sun to bring shade and during the winter the heat of the sun is let into the classroom.)

“For the majority of buildings, we think we can leave the thermostat off for the majority of the school year,” VanHoy said. “These buildings are going to be incredibly energy-efficient.”

Another fine exemplar of the campus’s eco-friendly outlook is the new dormitory, which will be built on stilts as to not disturb the ground’s network of oak tree roots.

Local Reaction

In late May, a time when the probability of project approval was fast-fading, Westmont executives announced a long break to regroup and redraw its plans. The college hired VanHoy to oversee the operation and added architect Ken Radtkey, of Blackbird Architects Inc., for more local influence and expertise on sustainability.

Refreshed by the two months off, officials say they’ve taken into account all Montecito Board of Architectural Review advice and criticisms, and have come up with a development plan that’s more compatible with the residential area.

Despite their mild praises of the project’s design elements and environmental sensibilities, opponents quickly denounced the visual improvements as nothing more than “window dressing.”

Laura Collector, who heads the project’s premier critic group, Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion, said the buildings were “less boxy and officy-looking” and the architecture was less intrusive. But she complained that the “miniscule difference” in square footage wasn’t enough to assuage her concerns.

“I don’t want to be a crabby person about this project,” Collector said. “I want to acknowledge the changes, but there’s still a long way to go.”

For starters, Collector said the college is still asking for too much in the way of buildings, compared to the makeup of surrounding properties. Besides, she believes the college already imposes great strains on residents of the larger neighborhood.

“Whether or not it’s an academic or institutional or commercial setting, it shall be compatible to residential uses,” Collector said.

Opponents also want the college to promise to never again raise its enrollment (right now it’s capped at 1,200 students) and to control its number of faculty members and number of annual special events (maximum today is 12).

“When Westmont won’t provide permanent guarantees, we have to be ultra careful” about what entitlements are granted, Collector said.

The college, however, says it’s given its best assurances that impacts will be mitigated and that the school won’t augment its enrollment. Westmont already has an enrollment restriction attached to the college’s conditional use permit. Violation of the limitations would result in County revocation of the college’s right to operate.

During a phone conversation last week, Cronk intimated that it would be unwise for the school to request a larger student base. “We’re a college whose grants depend on the limited size of enrollment,” he said. “Of course we don’t want more students, because that would lower the quality of education we offer to each student.”

Lowe, Gluck Strike Deal

Montecito actor Rob Lowe reached an agreement with neighbor and businessman Fred Gluck on September 11 that prevents their land use dispute from reaching the County Board of Supervisors docket.

In a written contract, Lowe promised to “refine” the landscaping plan at his Picacho Lane property to have “specific vegetation and height limitations,” according to Gluck’s attorney, Derek Westen. In exchange Mr. Gluck will drop his appeal to the five-member County panel.

“Both parties are pleased that we came up with an agreement that was mutually acceptable,” Westen said. “It was in the best interest of both parties and the community.”

Lowe’s attorney, Chris Jacobs, of Hatch & Parent, characterized the deal as a “win-win” situation, saying it puts to an end what had been “contentious” dialogue. “I think all parties are pleased to have the relationships between neighbors normalized,” Jacobs said. “This was a type of neighbor dispute not appropriate for this level of County government.”

Mr. Lowe has been trying to complete the construction of his new home, a 10,000-square-foot residence with an additional 2,400 square feet of side buildings. In June, the Montecito Planning Commission narrowly approved Lowe’s proposal. Gluck, former vice-chair and director of the Bechtel Group, appealed immediately, arguing the proposed house would interfere with this ocean views.

Westen said the case involved serious land use issues relevant to this area, mainly that the excessive sizes of houses place a burden on Montecito’s dearth of empty space. An appeal, Westen believed, could have brought about good changes in zoning policies.

Jacobs, however, said the Lowe/Gluck dispute was “not a good test case” for land use reform.

Cold Spring Tops County

For the fourth consecutive year, Cold Spring School led the entire county in state testing scores, while cross-town Montecito Union ranked third, behind Ballard Elementary. Cold Spring students increased their scores from last year by six points, up to 960 out of 1,000, for the school’s Academic Performance Index (API).

Meanwhile, at Santa Barbara Junior High, the public school that enrolls most Montecito elementary graduates, test results were encouraging, but not enough to pull it out of federal sanctions. Increasing its API two points to 757 left the junior high entering its third year of non-compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Schools with scores of less than 800 risk losing federal funding.


Town Hall Meeting Will Field Comments on Local Crime, Department’s Effectiveness

Spurred by public questioning of its level of service and by an impulse to discuss crime and safety issues with the community, the County Sheriff’s Department has organized a town hall meeting for September 18. The forum, co-sponsored by the Montecito Association and involving personnel from the California Highway Patrol, is designed to increase crime awareness and identify solutions to improve the welfare of residents.

“The goal of this town hall meeting is to enhance communication within the community and neighborhoods, building valuable partnerships,” said Lieutenant Darin Fotheringham, who’ll participate in the meeting.

The forum was organized in direct response to a July Journal article that reported a nearly 12% increase in crime in Montecito in the past 11 months, a change that defies across the board decreases in activity throughout the county.

The most noticeable change in Montecito has been the rising number of thefts, up 23%, from July 2005 to May 2006. Also striking has been the difference in stolen property values. Burglary values went up four-fold last year, up to $1.2 million, while theft values multiplied 17 times, from $150,000 to $2.6 million. In its defense, the Sheriff’s Department points to this year’s recovery rate of 53%.

The town hall meeting will address those increases and how law enforcement officials from both departments plan to crack down on the increased activity. Fotheringham said the forum will also give deputies the opportunity to teach residents how to be more proactive in preventing crime – by heightening their awareness and improving their security, for example.

A Q&A portion will also take place, said Fotheringham, for “soliciting community input” and gaining a pulse on how residents feel about their law enforcement service. An informal Journal survey conducted last issue (# 12/18) found that residents had mixed feelings about the service.

Montecito Association President Bob Collector said deputies have been as good as they can be. “They have been quite vigilant,” Collector said. “We have a very good working relationship with the Sheriff’s Department.”

Still, Collector said it’s natural for the general public to expect more than what it can receive. “Common sense would say Montecito residents would want a deputy twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Collector said.

Indeed, the concept of 24/7 deputy presence in Montecito was lobbed at the department in early 2005. Such an endeavor would have cost $600,000 and likely required as many as five officers to fulfill the program. Citing a budget crunch, sheriffs turned down the request and instead offered a community resource deputy, the first such position in the history of the county. Last October, Isaiah Tchobanoff was assigned the role of bridging “the gap between law enforcement and the community.”

Since a special ceremony last October announcing Tchobanoff’s appointment, there have been few concerted efforts to address crime issues. To community leaders, September 18 presents the best opportunity to resume those talks.

“It’s always good to have these discussions,” Collector said. “It’s always good to test the temperature of how our law enforcement officials are doing.”

Town Hall Meeting

When: Monday, September 18 7 pm to 8:30 pm

Where: Montecito Union School Auditorium, 385 San Ysidro Road

Info: 969-2026


Facing recent criticisms by Ty Warner representatives that they were waging an ‘Anti-Ty’ campaign, Montecito Association members responded last week with a stern defense against the hotel company.

“They attacked the Montecito Association and I really hate being attacked,” said Dick Shaikewitz, the Association’s secretary. “Apparently anyone who disagrees with them gets attacked. My criticism is with them for putting us in a bad light for differing in opinion.”

At its September 6 meeting, the Association’s Land Use Committee supported last month’s Montecito Planning Commission approval of Warner’s Biltmore seawall repair and upgrade. The commission’s vote included a condition removing some design elements from the plan.

Association members and planning commissioners said the design touches, such as a brick pathway and planters, appeared to be part of the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and could discourage public access to Channel Drive.

Land Use Chair Susan Keller said the seawall restoration “obscures public views” and “gives the appearance that this is the entrance to the Biltmore.”

The 10-2 decision nulls the Association’s January approval of the seawall. Members said a new vote was warranted because the original designs differed too greatly from the ones presented to the planning commission.

“The problem is that the Warner group never came back to us with what looks like a very substantial revision,” said member Jack Overall.

Other members, though, questioned whether the issue was significant enough to merit taking a position. Both Harry Kolb and Diane Morgan cast ‘no’ votes on the Association’s motion.

Influenced by demands to repair the seawall and by its ambitious architectural imagination, Mr. Warner’s team approached decision makers late last year with a $2 million restoration proposal. Lead architect David VanHoy came up with a design scheme that involves a revitalized version of the steps to Butterfly beach, a lookout point at the top of the stairs and other implementations to fit the aesthetic vocabulary of the Biltmore. This is in addition to a complete fix-up of the eastern portions of the seawall, installation of beach steps from the Coral Casino and a wheelchair ramp to the beach.

Planning commissioners opted to delete the brick path portion of the designs, a last-minute condition that Warner officials argued was outside the commission’s authority and expertise. For his part, Commissioner Richard Thielscher said the commission rules frequently on architectural portions of projects. The Association’s land use consultant, Victoria Greene, said the commission has the discretion to make design changes.

But the Warner team views the conditions, albeit minor, as central pieces in a larger plot to create roadblocks for the hotelier. In a firm affirmation of its principles, the group appealed the Planning Commission’s vote two weeks ago, saying it would no longer submit to the pressures of a “vocal minority.”

Responding to the appeal, Association President Bob Collector said he placed an unreturned phone call to Greg Rice, Warner’s executive vice president of development, offering to find common ground. But Bill Medel, Warner’s project manager, said his team has received no such invitation.

“We’ve made it pretty clear that if they review one of our projects or make a decision that affects us, we want to be notified,” Medel said.

The confusion underscores the determinedly frosty relations between two of Montecito’s best-known institutions. For years, the groups have frequently differed in opinion, but more so in the past six months during Warner’s quest to refine Channel Drive and improve its safety.

Association members have admitted they’re wary of Warner’s opportunism and his privatization of public areas. In particular, they worry his property acquisitions on Channel Drive and his implementations will further restrict access to the street for the community at large.

Calling the Association a “quasi-government,” Medel said the organization’s members too often exceed their authority to exert their will upon Warner and his supporters in the area.