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Imagining a home for community 

Cal Poly students design a center for Nipomo residents to play in

Though Nipomo residents have longed for a new community center since the old one lost its site in 2004, visions of what that center might look like were hazy until Cal Poly architecture students began dreaming up designs. And while the center's final approval and funding hangs in the balance, these designs are making the idea of a center seem a little more concrete.

click to enlarge MODELING COMMUNITY :  Cal Poly architecture major Kimiko Kohnos design for a Nipomo community center features a central courtyard, surrounded by a theater, kitchen, and gathering space. In her conceptual description, Kohno included plans for a security system that tracks childrens whereabouts with identification cards. - PHOTO COURTESY OF KIMIKO KOHNO
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF KIMIKO KOHNO
  • MODELING COMMUNITY : Cal Poly architecture major Kimiko Kohnos design for a Nipomo community center features a central courtyard, surrounded by a theater, kitchen, and gathering space. In her conceptual description, Kohno included plans for a security system that tracks childrens whereabouts with identification cards.

# At its March 22 meeting, the San Luis Obispo County Parks Commission voted to support the Nipomo Community Park Master Plan, which would put a new community center in Nipomo's 140-acre park. Senior parks planner Jan Di Leo said that the commission will release a mitigated negative impact report a less-serious version of an environmental impact report this summer. A public comment period will follow.

In the meantime, Nipomo Recreation Association Executive Director Becky Crowe has already taken the lead in getting the community excited about the center. This past winter, she invited Cal Poly students in Margarida Yin's third-year design studio class to draft designs for a community center.

For Cal Poly architecture major Ryan Ahmadi, the designs started as conceptual musings.

"As you approach the community center, something is different about it. You're not sure what it is, but there is something about its curves and angles that stimulates thought and provokes curiosity of what spaces might be contained by such volumes," Ahmadi wrote in his conceptual statement.

Crowe chose Ahmadi's model and five others from the class to display at the association's Cinco de Mayo Fundraiser on May 5.

Talk to residents, and they'll tell you the center would be a hub. A gym. A place for classes, barbecues, lectures, plays, yoga, and conversation. The list goes on, ranging from a place that fulfills some basic needs to a home away from home.

The Nipomo Recreation Association is well aware of many of these needs. As a nonprofit, the association provides after-school childcare and secures facilities for youth sports programs. The association depends on local schools for all of its facility-rental needs, but as Nipomo grows, it has struggled to secure enough space for its sports programs, especially basketball, Crowe said.

"There are many community projects that it's so needed for, especially like FFA and 4H presentations just local events," said Sharon Sears, who works at Dana Elementary School.

If the Recreation Association does build and operate the community center, it wants to include a theater in addition to sports facilities. The Adobe Players, a Nipomo-based theater group, had to disband because it couldn't afford the Lucia Mar Unified School District's fees.

Considering all of the different potential uses, creating an easily maneuverable space for all types of people was a huge priority for the Cal Poly students.

"The way I tried to do that was the main entry lobby was kind of a hub, and you had a lot of different choices on where you wanted to go," said student Danielle Carlson.

This moveable space may be important to keep a variety of ages interacting, said Kimiko Kohno, another student. Several Nipomo residents explained that they want to see people of different ages come together under one roof.

"I had along the outside a series of linear-horizontal elements. Inside was a central hallway that has spaces that come off of it. You move from one gathering space to another gathering space," Kohno said.

Several residents said senior use like Bingo nights and an exercise class must be considered. And family togetherness is a priority for resident Gina Witcher.

"The way I see it, it could be a weekend event Instead of pushing the kids off somewhere, we could all go," Witcher said.

If the center does become reality, construction will mark the end of a tough history for Nipomo's quest for a community hub. The facility that held the old Nipomo Community Center was sold to a real estate-investment firm by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education in September of 2004, said county Superintendent of Schools Julian Crocker. Crocker said that the county needed the money in order to build Mesa View Community School.

Funding may remain the biggest obstacle for the proposed center. The county has some funds set aside for public facilities, but the Recreation Association also plans to do its own fundraising and grant writing. Another possible obstacle is community opposition, especially from residents who live near the park and cherish its quiet and open spaces.

In order for the center to be accepted by the community, the design must maintain Nipomo's rural feel, said Phil Henry, chair of the South County Advisory Council, a group that speaks with county government on behalf of Nipomo residents.

"There are some concerns about safety and people being out at night," Henry said. "People object to lighting. When you start adding lighting, often in some of these rural areas, that's very objectionable to a lot of people."

Still, Henry said that few locals if any are outright opposed to allowing a center at all. It just needs to blend in.

Working with Nipomo's varied desires is nothing new for professor Yin, who's been an architect for decades. Clients' wishes and goals are always an important factor, she said.

"What I really emphasized to students is that being a good architect is not just about design you really have to make the building work for the users," she said. "You can't just make a beautiful building."

Ahmadi said he tweaked his original modern-style plans in order to incorporate that beloved rural feel, a revision process that he saw as a welcome challenge.

"I'm trying to get the community to accept this center rather than opposing it by creating a center that is a little of both [rural and modern]," Ahmadi said. His design has "barn-like corrugated aluminum roofing" that he noticed on structures throughout Nipomo. He created rooftops that are bucolic in their traditional barn-style A-frame, yet modern in their off-center point.

Yin's students also considered the community's funding constraints in their designs. All six students used multiple buildings, so the project can be built in phases as funding became available.

While there are opponents to the center, there are also many vocal proponents. The SLO County Parks Department's 2004 survey of Nipomo residents found that 56 percent supported the center, compared to 20 percent who opposed the center, and 24 percent who remained neutral. The Parks Commission is expected to give its final vote on the community center's inclusion in the park next fall.

Jeanine Stewart is a staff writer for New Times' sister paper, the Sun. She can be contacted at jstewart@santamariasun.com.

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