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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Raising a Stink

Ventura Officials Hope to Enhance Sewage Plant With a Park for Visitors

April 21, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Although one critic has likened it to "putting lipstick on a pig," the city is moving forward with a $700,000 public arts project next to its sewage plant.

The project--the most expensive of its kind in city history--would involve using wetlands behind the sewage plant at Ventura Harbor as the centerpiece of an educational park, which would attract tourists and bird-watchers.

The park would be developed around three ponds containing millions of gallons of treated effluent. The developed site could include pathways and viewing platforms to allow visitors to see how treated water travels from the ponds to the wetlands.

"It's an environmental project, one that goes beyond a statue on a corner," said Denise Sindelar, chairwoman of the Public Art Commission.

"I don't think the majority of our residents know how our waste water is treated," she added. "So many of us just flush, or whatever, and don't really have an understanding of how it goes back into the environment. Public art can help serve as an educational tool by bringing people down to the area."

Armed with binoculars, note pads and a good sense of humor, five artists competing for the project's $100,000 design fee visited the wetland site last week. The city plans to announce its choice of artist next month.

The project has created a stink among some residents.

"I have a pretty good pulse of what people think," said barber Rick Copeland, 54, a Ventura native and opponent of the plan. "It's a big waste of money. It's stupid."

Developing such a park, Copeland said, would be like "putting lipstick on a pig. . . . You can take a Van Gogh and a Renoir and put it at the sewer plant, and you've still got a sewer plant."

"The very idea of anybody thinking about art in such an--excuse me-- smelly place, I don't like it at all!" added Thelma Pearson, 83, who lives down the beach in Oxnard. "I've seen a map of how it's far away from the stinky place but it can't be far enough away."

Local taxpayer watchdog Jere Robings takes issue with an ordinance that dedicates 2% of most city building projects to art. "There's probably a greater need," Robings said. "I hear people in Ventura complaining all the time that their streets are crumbling."

But project backers said the plan will enhance an area that is a haven for plants, birds, fish, frogs, turtles, bobcats and muskrats. Over the years, they say, it has become a popular spot for bird-watchers.

"I'm a little disconcerted by the way this has been portrayed as some major art gallery with Degas hanging in it," Ventura City Councilman Carl Morehouse said. "People are running around flapping their arms about something that hasn't been defined yet."

And while the concept for the park may sound unusual, it's not unprecedented. San Diego is home to Alvarado Garden, an educational center atop a storage tank that holds 20 million gallons of drinking water.

There is also Waterworks Gardens located at a reclamation plant in Renton, Wash. That project was designed by Seattle artist Lorna Jordan, one of five finalists for the Ventura project.

In addition to pathways and viewing platforms, Jordan's Washington design includes steel grating so that people walking through can see and hear water rushing beneath them.

Each of the other finalists in the design competition also has experience with environmentally themed public art. New York artist Jody Pinto worked on Santa Monica's so-called BIG project, which runs parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway.

Colorado-based artist Lynne Hull has worked on wildlife projects in Kenya and Mexico. New York's Mary Miss designed a small urban wetland in Des Moines. And Buster Simpson of Seattle is working on a communal garden that runs along eight blocks of an urban street with a system that separates storm water from sewer water.

Although this is what they do for a living, the artists struggled to verbalize their visions for the Ventura site.

"The main thing is people have to find ways to redefine their relationships with their output--the leftovers of their lives--and the environment," Miss explained. "If you just put signs up, it's really didactic. Artists can make the emotional and psychological engagements with things."

Simpson quipped that critics might argue a sewage treatment plant is precisely the right medium for an artist. "Some would say because we're artists we're already at the bottom of the food chain."

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