College of Marin hones plan for Bolinas marine lab rebuild

Perkins-Eastman Dougherty
Plans for the rebuild of the marine lab on Wharf Road were revised, setting the structure back from the road and adding dormers to soften the austerity of the modern design.   

Bolinas residents okayed the latest design plans from the College of Marin for a proposed rebuild of the defunct marine lab on Wharf Road at a public meeting last week. 

Incorporating input from a community working group convened by the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, the architect hired by the college to tackle the project took several new measures to blend the design with surrounding residences since presenting initial drawings in May. 

Ignoring calls for preservation from local historians—the property began as a Coast Guard rescue station in the early 1900s—the college maintained that it must raze and rebuild the structure, considering the high cost of preserving it.  

Lance Kutz, an associate with the architectural firm Perkins Eastman, presented the new plans, estimated to cost around $3 million, at the firehouse on Wednesday. All existing structures—including the two-story, 3,333-square-foot house and separate laboratory—would be demolished. In their place, Mr. Kutz proposed a 3,000-square-foot, single-story structure with indoor and outdoor classrooms, equipment storage space and faculty offices. 

Mockups in May showed a modern building modeled off other contemporary field stations, but the newest plans softened the austerity, breaking the roofline with several dormers and setting part of the building further back from the street.

Six off-street parking spaces would sit behind a fence that rolls open and closed. Though the college previously indicated that those spaces could continue to be used by the community, on Wednesday president David Wain Coon said they hadn’t managed to come up with a way to do that. The dock across the street, also owned by the college, would remain open to the public. 

Residents who attended the presentation overall were excited about the prospect of the college resuming marine biology studies at the site, though some expressed ongoing concerns about the design. Several asked the college to reconsider the fence, which the architectural firm proposed to be made of metal. 

Mr. Coon said considering that the college’s public safety officers were at least 40 minutes away, the fence was in part needed for security purposes. The fence also would make maintaining parking for the college easy, given the difficulty of enforcing parking regulations in Bolinas by the sheriff’s office.  

Carson Walker, an architect who lives several doors down, pushed back. “I would strongly request that you consider the fence,” she said. “I think that the buildings can be secure in themselves, and I don’t know if you need to have this gated, operational fence that’s going to cut out the parking and secure an outdoor lab space.” 

She added, “I would encourage you to look at some softer ways to give protection.”

Yet others who live in the immediate area said they thought the fence was completely necessary. “People have hopped the fence, broken in, and there have been many instances,” said Jeannie Krese, who has lived next door for more than 40 years. “I believe in fences for that reason.”

Residents also remained split on the issue of parking, with some lamenting the loss of spots currently open to the public outside the derelict building. 

Ralph Camiccia, who participated in BCPUD’s working group, said he thought it was a fair decision to block off the parking, however. “I think the parking situation is going to be no different than the parking situation we have planned in the future,” he said in reference to plans for a downtown housing project proposed by the Bolinas Community Land Trust. “They are going to have off-street parking dedicated to that unit, just as we will have here, and I think it falls into the same category.”

Although Mr. Camiccia voiced one design sticking point over the placement of a dormer, he thanked the college for adequately involving the community in the design process. 

In a casual poll of the room, Mr. Coon counted a unanimous thumbs-up from the roughly 30 residents in attendance. He said the college would now bring the plans back to its board for final approval, adding that the timeline for obtaining county permits was uncertain but that he hoped to cut the ribbon on a new building within two years. 

Joe Mueller, a senior biology professor at the college who has rallied his department around saving the lab, described his excitement on Wednesday. 

“The most important thing—and what we have always said from a marine biology and scientific standpoint—is location, location, location,” he said. “We have Duxbury Reef, we are surrounded by the park, we have Bolinas Lagoon: these are all unusual in that they are relatively unpolluted, they are not developed. It’s a phenomenal place for a lab. And to have a lab in the center of all that, and to have that proximity, is a scientist’s gold mine.”

Mr. Mueller has been instrumental over the past several years in determining what to do with the lab, which has been closed since 2006 due to a number of critical health and safety issues, including a black mold infestation. His department hired legal counsel to help the college determine how to use public monies for its repair, and lobbied the college’s board to maintain ownership rather than transferring it to the community. 

Historically, the site is one of eight rescue stations built in California by the agency that later became the Coast Guard. An original 1881 building burned down and was rebuilt in 1917 to address the high death toll near Duxbury Reef. Stations at Point Reyes and Point Bonita took over watch of the area in 1946.

The College of Marin purchased the buildings in 1955, intending their use as an educational facility. In 1963, marine biology teacher Al Molina presented a plan to an enthusiastic board of directors to convert the buildings into a learning and research center, with the former garage serving as a laboratory.