ENCINITAS — The nonprofit arts group that wants to transform the shuttered Pacific View Elementary School site into an arts, culture and ecology center is now asking for the city to play a larger role in moving the project toward fruition.
At a special City Council meeting on Jan. 29 the group, the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance (EACEA) told the Encinitas City Council that it would like to change their arrangement from an “exclusive negotiating agreement” to a “memorandum of understanding.”
“It’s time to regroup … we still need to get to the end zone with this,” said John DeWald, the president of the EACEA, adding that the change “represents that we’re talking about a partnership more than a landlord/tenant kind of relationship.”
As for what that partnership might look like, DeWald said the alliance would like some financial help from the city, especially when it comes to insurance costs and permit-related expenses.
EACEA board member Steven Winters said the group believes a partnership with the city will lower costs as they build the cultural arts center, lessen the burden on city staff and city government, and ultimately bring to fruition “our collective goal” of establishing Encinitas as an art and cultural hub of San Diego.
“Our vision is to transform Pacific View Elementary School into a community arts center serving all of the members of our community … and ultimately we want to make the most people happy not the least people unhappy,” Winters said. “Our goal is to coordinate and collaborate with the city to ensure the success of this project.”
The Encinitas Union School District closed Pacific View School in 2003, citing declining enrollment. In 2014, the city purchased the defunct campus from the district for $10 million. The following year, the city selected the then-newly formed EACEA to steward the transformation of the school site.
Winters said in those five years the group has raised over $500,000 from grants, donations and pledges and had over $100,000 of in-kind gifts and donated services. He said it’s been estimated that they’ve increased the value of the property by over $1 million by making a number of improvements to the site including adding a new roof, fixing broken windows, painting the exterior walls, improving the landscaping and the parking lot, and making security improvements that include new gates and a fence.
“These buildings were in tough shape, they’re now very, very close to occupy-able,” Winters said.
He added, “It was dangerous, there were some dangerous awnings and shutters that had to be removed and I believe that what we’ve really proven to you is that we’ve improved this city asset and created a safer environment for all of us.”
DeWald said that moving the project forward in both the short and long term will require permits. The group tried to start the permit process last year but hit a roadblock when the city’s planning commissioners postponed the decision saying they required additional information from EACEA. DeWald said that even with revisions to its permit applications, the group is concerned it might face additional obstacles.
He added that the alliance doesn’t have money to handle possible challenges and appeals and would like financial help from the city with that.
The council said it was open to exploring more of a collaborative role with EACEA but first wanted more information about how much money the city would be asked to contribute. The council instructed city staff to do cost assessments and to conduct a community survey to solicit feedback from the public on what they would like to see at the site.
As a short-term solution, the council agreed to extend the current negotiating agreement for 90 days past the current March 9 expiration date.
Several speakers spoke at the meeting, some of them saying they would like to see an art center on the property so long as there is no impact on-street parking, which is already limited in the area.
Donald McPherson, who owns property across from the school, said he’d like to see the site used for art classes for kids in special education programs.
Former City Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, who was one of the people who voted to purchase the property during her time on the council, said she wanted to bring attention to something that gets overlooked at the property — the valuable open space it provides.
“The buildings matter and we want to figure out what to do with them, but we also know there’s great value in having beautiful, public open space for communities to gather … a peaceful place for people to go and enjoy outdoors,” she said.
Shaffer added that she’d also like to see another community room since “the library community room is … booked all the time and there’s clearly a need for more general space for the community to come and use for various activities.”
Several speakers praised the council members who showed support for keeping the existing mid-century buildings on the site. Mayor Catherine Blakespear reiterated that support on a post on her website on Feb. 2, saying she wanted to see the buildings repurposed for beneficial use instead of tearing them down.
“I believe they have historic and aesthetic value as part of the evolution of our city,” Blakespear wrote.