The group of arts enthusiasts that’s been seeking to turn the old Pacific View School property into a community arts and ecology center for five years is now asking the city to help carry the project across the finish line.
“It’s time to re-group,” John DeWald, president of the arts alliance’s board of directors, told the Encinitas City Council during a special meeting Wednesday night, Jan. 29.
DeWald and other board members of the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance, a coalition of Encinitas arts enthusiasts and nonprofit organizations, said that they’d like to drop their current “exclusive negotiating agreement” with the city and replace it with a more collaborative “memorandum of understanding.” Among other things, they said, they’d like the terms of the new agreement to include some city financial help, particularly with insurance costs and permit-related expenses.
Council members said they might be open to that idea, but wanted more information about how much money the city might be contributing. As a short-term solution, the council agreed to extend the current negotiating agreement for several more months. They also asked city staff to produce some cost assessments and to conduct surveys to find out what the community wants from the property.
“We need to look at this with eyes wide open,” Councilman Joe Mosca said.
In 2003, the Encinitas Union School District closed Pacific View School, citing declining enrollment. The district then tried for years to unload the property, but the Third Street site’s public facilities zoning limited the district’s sales prospects. Ultimately, the city reached a deal with the school district to buy the 2.8-acre property in 2014.
Once the city took over ownership, the then-newly-formed arts alliance received a “right of entry agreement” allowing it to make repairs on the aging property. Using volunteer labor, the alliance has renovated the landscaping, repainted the buildings and removed debris. Board members said Wednesday night, Jan. 29, that they’ve installed a new roof, brought the buildings back to close to “occupy-able” status and likely increased the value of the property by about $1 million.
However, DeWald said, they don’t think they can take the next short-term or long-term steps alone.
In order to proceed with any long-term development plans for the site, they’re going to need multiple city and state permits, including ones from the state Coastal Commission, he noted. Even the alliance’s short-term plans to start offering a few classes or events in some of the existing buildings will require some permits, he said. Their initial attempt to launch the permit process ran into a roadblock last year when the city’s planning commissioners postponed their decision, saying the alliance’s paperwork needed more details.
At the Jan. 29 meeting, DeWald told the City Council that the alliance is concerned that even with revisions to its permit applications it might face additional obstacles.
“We do expect that there is a potential for challenges and appeals,” he said, later adding that the organization doesn’t have the money to handle those issues on its own and would like help from the city.
Neighboring property owners have expressed concerns in the past about the alliance’s long-term plans for the site, saying they found them to be a bit “nebulous.” On Jan. 29, several nearby property owners said they would like to see an art center on the property as long as it doesn’t impact street parking, which is already in short supply in this coastal area. They also said they were glad that several City Council members indicated support that night for keeping the existing buildings on the site, rather than replacing them with a new theater complex.
Donald McPherson, who owns rental property just west of the site, suggested using Pacific View’s existing rooms for art classes for children in special education programs, saying “it’s a fairly simple thing to implement.”
Other public speakers that night included several people who volunteered for years to renovate the property and wanted to continue maintaining the vegetation while the city reaches a new agreement with the alliance.
Former city councilwoman Lisa Shaffer also spoke. Shaffer, who voted to purchase the property when she was on the council, said she was “still glad to have cast that vote.” She reminded the current council that the place has value as open space and encouraged the city to consider including a community meeting room in the plans, similar to the often-booked community room at the library.
— Barbara Henry is a freelance reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune