September 28, 2022
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Westmont: Juggling Plan A and Plan Tea

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The Tea Fire caught Westmont College in the middle of its largest construction project in decades, and the devastation wrought by the blaze actually could speed the campus makeover even as it causes some vexing problems for officials.

The private, Christian-oriented college for some 1,200 students had pulled building permits for two brand new buildings just 48 hours before the fire broke out Nov. 13.

Now, officials are operating on two tracks, putting a price tag on the several buildings that were damaged or destroyed and continuing with master plan construction.
The face of Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, is undoubtedly about to change considerably over the next several years.

As they began to assess the damage from the Tea Fire, school officials were bewildered by the path the fire took. The blaze burned down several structures that were already planned to be demolished just days later.

The old math building and the Quonset huts, used by the art department, as well as the baseball field, burned in the fire. Whether or not Westmont can have them rebuilt using insurance funds is unclear, said Westmont Media Relations Manager Scott Craig.

But the fire also had a much less fortuitous path as it tore through campus. By the time firefighters had the blaze under control, 15 faculty homes, four residence halls and four other buildings were damaged or destroyed, including the three planned for demolition.

Westmont has been in the beginning stages of building out its master plan, and had celebrated a ground breaking ceremony in late October for the Adams Center for the Visual Arts and Winter Hall for Science and Mathematics. Craig said, however, that only the trees had been trimmed by Nov. 13. The two preexisting buildings were untouched by the flames.

Westmont’s master plan construction signifies the first major facelift for the campus in about 25 years, according to officials. In the first phase of its master plan, Westmont plans to build a chapel, observatory and residence hall in addition to the art center and science building, while reconfiguring the campus road and athletic fields.

To replace lost classroom space destroyed by the fire, Westmont plans to use portable teaching spaces as a temporary solution. The college canceled classes until Dec. 1 and will have a fast-paced two weeks of instruction before finals and winter vacation.

As for the 67 students displaced by the fire that damaged the residence halls, many have headed home until classes reconvene. For those in the area, the college’s community was quick to help.

“Some are staying with faculty and staff and friends in town,” Craig said. “I know there was one music professor who had about a dozen students living at his house. We had so many offers of people giving us free rooms that we’re able to put some people in different places. I know by Saturday [Nov. 15] morning, mid-morning, we had more than 400 rooms that had been made available to us.”

As for faculty who lost their homes at Las Barrancas, Westmont has the structures insured, but the contents are the responsibility of the faculty to insure. Of the 41 units, 14 were destroyed at Las Barrancas and another faculty home on Circle Drive burned as well.

Westmont sells and buys back the units as part of an affordable housing program for the college’s staff and Craig said the project is a model for other universities trying to offer affordable faculty housing.

Students who lost their belongings in the residence hall fires are facing the same insurance debacle. Westmont owns the buildings, but the contents are the responsibility of the students.
For many students, that means they’ve lost everything. In the short-term, donations of food and clothing poured in from individuals, businesses and nonprofits from throughout the Santa Barbara region.

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