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It's historic, but also a wreck. Santa Barbara mulling replacing house in park with scenic overlook

The City of Santa Barbara is looking at what it can do with the current site of
Lance Orozco
The City of Santa Barbara is looking at what it can do with the current site of Franceschi House, in Franceschi Park. Plans call for tearing down the dilapidated building, which has been considered beyond repair for decades.

The City is asking for the community's ideas in reimagining Franceschi House, which has fallen into disrepair and has sat empty for decades.

We’re in a park in the foothills of Santa Barbara. It has spectacular view of the city, the Santa Barbara Channel, and on a clear day, the Channel Islands.

To get to it, you have to take some twisty, winding roads through a number of neighborhoods. Even some longtime residents don't know much about it.

"Franceschi Park is very much a hidden gem. I've met people who are born and raised in Santa Barbara and have never been here," said Jill Zachary, who is the City of Santa Barbara’s Parks and Recreation Department Director.

Francesco Franceschi was a noted Italian botanist who bought several pieces of property in the early 1900's, and introduced a number of plants to the region. He created his own botanical garden on part of the property before financial difficulties forced him to sell.

"This property which is now known as Franceschi Park was gifted to the city in 1931 by Alden Freeman, who was the owner at that time. He purchased the property from the Franceschi family," said Zachary. "The park itself is 17 acres...different parcels."
But, the park is at a key juncture in its history. It’s home to Franceschi House, a massive, but dilapidated mansion with a multi-million dollar view of the coast. The once grand home has become an eyesore, and safety hazard.

"Once upon a time, when the property was first gifted to the city, the house was actually inhabited. It wasn't well maintained throughout its life," said Zachary. "Ultimately, it came to a point in about 1992 that it could no longer be inhabited. It is a challenging structure to have in a city park because it is completely a recreational facility, access to the site is challenging."

The city struggled with restoration proposals for more than a half century. In 2018, the Santa Barbara City Council looked at different options for the site, and decided the best concept was to remove the house, and creating a public space, like an overlook, which honors its legacy.

Now, the Parks and Recreations Department is getting public reaction to proposals its developed for the site.

"The project is designed to reimage the space of the house," said Sean Stewart, who is a Project Planner with the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department.

"The house would be deconstructed, we would preserve as much as we could, components of the house which have historical significance as a way to remember the past, and then re-envision the space primarily in the footprint of the house."

There are now four concept designs centering around the city overlook concept.

The city did a survey and a public workshop. It now has a final online survey open through May 27for people to share their thoughts on the ideas.

Nearby resident and frequent park visitor Jennifer Townhill says she likes the overlook concept.

"I think that would be great, it would be nice to have some sort of an overlook spot here,"

The house is a city landmark. The City’s Landmarks Commission would have to approve its removal. That’s the next step in the process.

But, nothing will happen quickly. There’s money to develop a plan, but finding funding for a multi-million dollar project could take years. It would be expensive, because retaining walls might be needed for an overlook on the slumping hillside.

While the dilapidated house will in all likelihood be gone, more than 90% of those surveyed say they come to the park for the views. And, a new overlook with built in historical elements could enhance that experience.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.