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Fate of Solvang Man's Dream Is Up in the Air

Debate has gone round and round for years in town on a proposal to build a Ferris wheel. Voters will have their say Nov. 5.

October 22, 2002|Veronique de Turenne | Special to The Times

SOLVANG, Calif. — In a town with enough windmills for a dozen Don Quixotes, Gary Jensen is tilting at Ferris wheels. One Ferris wheel, actually, which he wants to build on a vacant lot he's owned since 1971. And he'd like you to call it the Tivoli Wheel.

A scaled-back replica of the ride in Copenhagen's famed Tivoli Gardens, Jensen's wheel would seem a perfect match for Solvang, which celebrates all things Danish. But resistance has turned his quixotic quest into a 10-year battle with the city and some of its residents.

Too tacky, goes the anti-Ferris wheel lament. Delightfully Danish, the Tivoli Wheel's backers reply. On Nov. 5, both sides will get their say when the matter goes to a vote in the form of Measure L.

Jensen, who collected 327 valid signatures to place the matter of the wheel on the ballot, needs a simple majority for his project to go ahead. A similar measure in 1994 was defeated when 55% of voters said no.

"If they would just let me try it and show that it won't harm anything -- that's all I really want," Jensen said. He's spending his own money on fliers and television commercials in which family members explain the specifics of the Tivoli Wheel and ask for voters to give it a whirl.

"If it's not right for Solvang, I'll take it down," said Jensen, who estimates he'll spend several hundred thousand dollars to make the wheel a reality. "But please, let me at least try."

Jensen got the idea for the Tivoli Wheel about 15 years ago, when friends from Denmark described the Tivoli Gardens and showed him a brochure with the Danish wheel on the cover.

He immediately imagined a Tivoli Wheel transforming the dirt parking lot just outside the main village area that he bought in 1971. "I thought, 'What a great thing to bring here,' " Jensen said. "It's as Danish as can be."

Jensen's original plan for the wheel, submitted in the early 1990s, proved too tall. He made the rounds of the city's building department and planning commission. After several tries, he came up with a scaled back version with six passenger baskets that hang from hot air balloons.

"It's completely authentic, literally copied from the ride in the Tivoli Gardens," said Lawrence Thompson, a Santa Barbara architect who designed the site. Thompson's plans include flowering trees and shrubs to screen the ride, as well as an abundant use of flowers.

"This is a story of incredible dedication to a dream," Thompson said. "Gary Jensen is taking a very ugly parking lot and turning it into a charming space."

But neighbors at the nearby Santa Ines Mission fail to see the charm. At 49 feet high, the wheel would tower over the mission walls, which are 10 to 12 feet high. They fear that noise from revelers will disturb the mission grounds.

"It's going to be a 49-foot wheel with, well, I won't call them 'screaming' children, but certainly excited children, making joyful sounds as they go around and around on the wheel overlooking our property," said Father Michael Mahoney, pastor of the Santa Ines Mission.

Mahoney worries that visitors to the mission will be disturbed by the sounds and sights of the Tivoli Wheel. "One thing that is very important to me is that a California mission is of great historical significance, and our mission here at Santa Ines has been a terrific part of what Solvang is."

After a decade, the Tivoli Wheel has left its mark on Solvang City Hall. City Manager Marlene Demery declined to comment on the commercial appeal of Jensen's proposed ride.

"It's a very controversial topic here in town," Demery said. "People have very strong opinions -- they either think it's a great way to get more people to come to town, or they are certain it will drive people away."

Marianne Dix, a longtime Solvang resident, is all for the Tivoli Wheel: "We used to have a miniature golf course and a movie theater, and now that they're gone, there's not a lot left for kids to do here in town," said Dix, who tends bar at a local hotel. "The people I talk to are for it."

So the wheel is discussed at local watering holes?

"Yes, sure," Dix said. "But this is Solvang -- we talk about anything and everything."

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