By Raiza Giorgi
After an overwhelming turnout for the special meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Solvang City Council elected to continue its discussion of entering into a proposed project at the old Solvang Lumber Yard and current site of the Solvang Veteran’s Memorial Hall as well as several other identified areas in Solvang.
Mayor Ryan Toussaint stated he was glad that the public was enthusiastically participating in this process and motioned to receive the report and hear the presentation from Santa Barbara-based developer Ed St. George, hear council questions on the project, public comment and questions and then continue the meeting in an outdoor setting like Solvang Park in the next several weeks.
“The council has had four public meetings of the city visioning process hoping to get public input. Thankfully that’s now happening,” Toussaint said.
The renderings of the proposed project showed the Solvang Veteran’s Hall, built in 1936, would be replaced with a three-story public administration building, which includes a new City Hall, Veteran’s Hall, 3rd District Supervisor office, Senior Center and Cyber Library. The multi-phase project also includes two hotels, commercial space and penthouse condos on the fourth floor of the residential units. There is also a two-level parking garage.
An hour before the special meeting on Tuesday, there were more than 100 people that showed up to Solvang City Hall to protest entering into negotiations with St. George and postponing the meeting until the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.
“The biggest issue is that this should not be happening now with this health crisis and when we are not all allowed in,” said Thor Andresen, a third-generation Solvang resident and veteran of Afghanistan. “I am a veteran and a member of the VFW and I am frequently at the Vet’s Hall, and the Vet’s Hall is an integral piece of our history.”
His father, Christian Andresen, echoed those statements saying that the council trying to downplay the Vet’s Hall as just an old building is not true.
“There have been endless uses for the Vet’s Hall for decades,” he said. “Sure it needs refurbishment, but we cannot tear it down.”
City Manager Xenia Bradford stated in the beginning of the meeting that this was just the preliminary steps and beginning stages of the project, however the staff report recommended several options for entering into an exclusive agreement with St. George for not only the Vet’s Hall property, but a large scale project at Solvang Park.
During the presentation, Ken Hira of Kosmont Companies outlined that his company was hired in January to perform a Market Demand Analysis for the City of Solvang. Kosmont identified potential demand for additional hotel rooms in the trade area and a demand for multi‐family residential units. Kosmont recommended a blended-use development integrating hotel, restaurants, and residential units.
In February, the city started talking with St. George on an idea for “a central European-style plaza. The development proposes adding property tax value by building hotel and housing infrastructure while creating central place for larger gatherings and events and day to day use as a park. The proposed development is also a mixed use with dining space expanding experiential tourism to the downtown area,” according to the staff report.
This public-private partnership would consist of St. George, the City of Solvang, the County of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s, American Legion and VFW, Solvang Library and the Solvang Senior Center. The project also proposes taking over several private residences along Pine Street, including a house owned by Erling and Sue Pohls and Ron Bender. Sue Pohls submitted a letter before the council meeting stating she was never approached about this project and will not be selling their property.
“You don’t do things in one fell swoop and the concept here is a blend of uses and it will continue to evolve,” Hira said.
He added that community involvement was imperative and the agreement of entering into exclusive negotiations with the developer would shape the project and could take 12 months or longer before any binding agreements are done, as well as environmental clearance.
“It will take a lot of input to get to that point,” Hira said.
Jarrett Gorin of Vanguard Planning, based in Santa Barbara, represented St. George, who was sitting in the front row. Gorin gave a presentation on the inspiration for the project from buildings in Denmark and said the picture the Star posted was of a project in Azusa. (The rendering the Star posted was from the city staff report and showed the style of mixed-use development proposed, and stated it was not the actual project in the article at the top.) Their inspiration came from Scandinavian style architecture and posted several examples. See below.
Gorin stated the project can start with the properties St. George currently owns, which includes the Lumber Yard and Marcus Nielsen’s house, one of the oldest houses in Solvang, and once the agreements are done to continue into the next phase of the Vet’s Hall property.
Gorin then said if the Mission Drive Conceptual Plan project is voted down they can instead move forward with building 50 residential units, which is currently approved for those lots; however, they looked at this opportunity to create something which would draw more people to the city by creating this “district.”
During public comment, Chris Nielsen, the first speaker, said he believes the council members have their hearts in the right place to make Solvang as good as it can be, but they have to listen to the “many hearts outside.”
“Listening to this proposal has a lot of amenities, but the past is also important to Solvang especially the Vet’s Hall,” he said. “Don’t forget the moral obligation as it was built ‘in perpetuity’ to the veterans. The word ‘stakeholders’ is bantered about, but you are talking about people who have spent the most important part of their lives celebrating, commemorating, gathering and fundraising at this Vet’s Hall for decades,” Nielsen said.
He continued that the proposal included small retail spaces for ‘pop-up’ style shops and asked if that was the council’s meaning of high-end clientele or more like a swap meet.
“No, the Vet’s Hall isn’t on the state registry… yet. But in the hearts and minds of this community, the Vet’s Hall is historic and no one wants it gone,” Nielsen said.
Solvang resident Hazel Mortensen said she was originally not in favor of the project but she doesn’t want to see Section 8 housing that will attract criminals from Lompoc. She also stated she thinks Pine Street housing look like a slum and her property value is getting lower by the year.
Bender, who owns one of the properties shown in the project, spoke before the council stating he has never been contacted about this project.
“I am not selling my house and no one can make me. I hope it fails and I don’t think it’s right,” he said. “We should keep Solvang smaller. If you (council) think this is a good idea just remember election coming up and you will go away.”
Solvang Senior Center President Alice Olla spoke, saying she has a lease with the county until 2068, they have been fundraising for a new senior center for a while and this new project doesn’t benefit the senior center.
“The one sentence that stood out the most is, ‘We think a better use of the land,’ stands out,” said resident Linda Hanley.
She then turned to St. George and said “You don’t live here. This isn’t your town, this is our town and we have decades of memories going to the Library with our children and the Vet’s Hall. I met my husband there. WE live here and WE should decide. And you, in particular, Mr. Djernaes don’t appear to love Solvang as it is.”
Toussaint had to immediately step in as Councilman Chris Djernaes was going to retort and only said “Let’s talk afterward,”.
Speaker Andreas Pyper said he took his U.S. citizen oath in 2006 and considered it the greatest privilege to petition his elected officials.
“It is important you listen and please what you are trying to do is against your citizen’s best interest,” he said. “I voted for you Mr. Clarke, Toussaint and Djernaes, and I am so disappointed you do not listen. Do not rip the heart of Solvang.”
Former Santa Barbara County Planning Commissioner Lansing Duncan said the council’s sweeping grandiose rubber stamp without public review during a health crisis is not acceptable.
“This is public property and you’re acting as though it is private ownership,” he said. “Any proposals should immediately alarm every citizen of the valley as the Vet’s Hall and the Mission are the most historic and focus of valley life. Our veterans fought and died and this building is the memorialization of that sacrifice. The hall can’t be replaced by a room jammed into the corner of this project, it’s ludicrous.”
Bruce Porter echoed the statement that the idea of the council talking about any proposal to demolish the Vet’s Hall the day after Memorial Day is shameful. He also brought up California law which states once a dedication of a memorial building is made it cannot be revoked.
“Similar in Paso Robles they shut down the memorial building and wanted to give a meeting room,” he said. “The court rules the downgrade was ‘unconscionable.’ Without consulting a single veteran dishonors the graves we placed more than 1,000 flags on this past weekend. The one MAJOR stakeholder is the veterans.”
Porter told the council members that, as they sit on the dais today and every day, to remember “You have that privilege because of sacrifice of courageous citizens like Buellton’s Aaron Allen, killed in action in Iraq, and Solvang’s Joshua Townsend, who died in Afghanistan. Remember them and honor them and don’t remove the memorial to them.”
Several times, Toussaint had to ask Djernaes from making comments to the speakers, and on several occasions the speakers addressed Djernaes’ lack of decorum by laughing and shaking his head during their comments.
“This project should have never been considered and we shouldn’t have to be here to oppose it,” said Darryl Scheck, Solvang resident. “I urge you to reject this plan and this now resonates with the 1,600 that signed a petition in the last four days, which includes 600 Solvang residents. In case you’re unaware, people were out protesting in this public health uncertainty risking their health against this L.A. 2.0 development.”
As Scheck wrapped up he noted “as Djernaes keeps laughing in the corner. Really classy, thanks Chris.”
Djernaes retorted he appreciated the insults.
There were several more speakers on Zoom who also asked the council not to move forward with this proposal, and Toussaint reiterated that there will be a continuation of the meeting and the letters people wrote in will be read into the record at the later meeting. To watch the entire meeting, visit the www.YouTube.com and search City of Solvang.