Draft plans show modern Bo marine lab

05/09/2019

The College of Marin is securing permits to raze and rebuild its marine lab in Bolinas, which has been out of commission since 2006. At a public meeting last week at the firehouse, the college’s architect presented preliminary plans for the $3 million project.

Addressing a crescendo of public concern about the defunct building, in 2017 the college started getting serious about finding a way to rehabilitate the lab, and even presented the idea that a Bolinas nonprofit take over ownership. But alumni and professors from the earth and environmental sciences department pushed back, hoping to restore the lab for their students. 

Their efforts were effective: with legal counsel, the department effectively disproved the administration’s argument that it could not use public monies for repairs due to the property’s proximity to fault lines. Last fall, administrators determined that there were in fact no legal barriers to using Measure B funds for a rehabilitation—and unearthed a private trust with $240,000 earmarked specifically for the lab.

The room was packed last Wednesday, divided in equal parts between the Bolinas and college communities. Lance Kutz, an associate with the architectural firm Perkins Eastman, presented the plans. 

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 2,300-square-foot, one-story structure to include classrooms, equipment storage space and faculty offices. Mockups show a modern building modeled off other contemporary field stations—a contrast to the century-old building that blends with the surrounding residences. 

All seven off-street parking spaces would be maintained, though community members could use them when college activities are not underway. The dock, also owned by the college, would remain open to the public. 

Once the college board approves the plans later this month, designs will be submitted for county environmental and building review. The college must also get approval from the California Coastal Commission and possibly the Division of the State Architect as part of a permitting process administrators estimate will take a year.  

“While the project plans are by no means a done deal, we now have a concept that has been well received by the campus community and community at large,” David Wain Coon, the superintendent and president of the college, told the Light this week. 

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, and the college soon purchased the lab and began operating a marine biology program. 

Bolinas residents expressed positive sentiments about the new plans, though some expressed reservations about the design concept. 

Ralph Camiccia, who chairs the Bolinas Lagoon Advisory Council, said, “First of all, I think it’s really great that they are moving forward on this. It’s long overdue: the way that the building has been sitting for years really wasn’t right for the community and wasn’t right for the college itself.” 

Yet Mr. Camiccia also echoed concerns expressed by others last Wednesday. “I think that they need to talk with the community more, to show some other versions of what is possible," he said. "They want to tear everything down and start fresh. And I think that is fine, except that the architecture needs to fall in line with what we have already. Some people in town would prefer to have the building just remodeled, though I don’t think that’s up to us.”

Nicole Cruz, a spokeswoman for the college, explained to the Light that rebuilding was more cost-effective; complicating matters, the property is within a tsunami warning area, a flood zone and a rock slide area, and the two-story house has asbestos paneling and is infested with black mold and mildew. The community will have more chances to comment, however. Once the district has a full set of drawings, it will return to Bolinas to present them, Ms. Cruz said. 

There may be a fighting argument for a design that maintains the historical integrity of the site: According to historian Dewey Livingston, who has successfully listed numerous properties along the West Coast under the National Register for Historic Places, the lab is eligible for the register. Its sister station, the Point Reyes Lifeboat Station on Drakes Bay, which dates back to 1927, was listed on the register in 1985 and further declared a historic landmark in 1989. 

Ralph Shanks, a Novato maritime historian who specializes in the Coast Guard, said the building is the last surviving station out of the original eight lifesaving stations in California that maintains the original, Chatham-type architecture. Despite its condition, little has been changed since the early 1900s; even the Point Reyes station was modified. 

Although the college will not use federal funds for the project—which would trigger a compliance process with the State Historic Office before tearing it down—Mr. Livingston said he thought it was due diligence for the county and the college to determine its eligibility for the register. “In no way do I want to hinder the college’s marine biology program,” he said. “I just don’t want that to be at the expense of an incredible historic building.”