Inch by inch and row by row, the Ventura County Botanical Gardens at Grant Park in Ventura have been drafted, presented to the public and now await city approval. The city will decide whether leasing the entire 109 acres of Grant Park to the Ventura Botanical Gardens, also known as the VBG, a nonprofit organization, is feasible or no more than wishful thinking.

The master plans for the gardens, headed by the VBG and designed by the landscape architecture consultants Mia Lehrer and Associates, will cost between $10 million and $100 million, depending on how much of the project is actualized, according to Doug Halter, vice president of the VBG. The funds would be acquired through grants and donations.

Initially, the plan was to lease 10 acres of the park for a modest botanical garden. The plans soon became loftier, calling for 50 acres. But to adequately facilitate park maintenance, security, lighting and environmental issues, it made more sense for the VBG to incorporate all 109 acres of the park into the master plans.

The master plans illustrate five sections of botanical gardens linked by walking paths. The gardens would include ample Mediterranean flora as well as California natives and cacti. Additionally, Halter said, the gardens would include an educational facility, amphitheater, picnic areas, telescopes, stone quarries, a cafe and possibly a funicular to transport patrons from downtown Ventura to the gardens.

“This would be the largest endeavor that has been attempted in the city of Ventura in the 27 years I have lived here,” said Halter.

Without the lease, however, the garden are no more than a pretty sketch. Though the VBG has raised nearly $200,000 in funds, applying for grants cannot begin until the lease from the city is negotiated and secured. Halter said the goal is to secure the lease by November, and signs of gardens will show by early spring.
The City Council has expressed strong support for the idea, though the risk the city takes in approving the lease is the uncertainty that the VBG will be able to continue generating funds and manage the gardens successfully.

The challenge for both is to strike a balance that protects long-term public interest,” said city manager Rick Cole. “If successful at fundraising and management, then it is a terrific partnership. But if five to 10 years in the future, and funding falters, how do we fix the problem?”

During the final community meeting about the gardens on July 1, concerns were raised about traffic, parking and potential crime in the remote location of Grant Park. But Halter confirmed plans for security presence in the park and implementing shuttles, or the funicular, to ease traffic flow and parking constraints. Also, access to hike into the gardens would be provided.

Attracting visitors to Grant Park, which overlooks the city of Ventura, has never been an issue. But the VBG envisions visitors making a day of it.

“The city has had the park for close to 100 years. Most go there for a few minutes to show people around, then leave,” said Halter. “It’s a prestigious location in Ventura County, and we want to make it a place in the region where people would want to go to enjoy relationships with each other, the community and to be educated.”

The VBG has attained support from many local organizations, including the Ventura Hillside Conservancy, the Serra Cross Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation.

“We’ve worked with them supportively,” confirmed Matt Sayles, executive director of the Hillside Conservancy. “We’ve instructed them what to avoid, and they have long-term plans to work with us.”

Sayles said that from what the Hillside Conservancy has seen, local habitat would not be endangered by the botanical gardens and the speculative construction surrounding the gardens.

“From a management perspective, the city is scaling back on park and rec services, but as a nonprofit, they (VBG) would be able to facilitate that,” said Sayles. “I see no red flags.”

If the adage is true, that all politics is local, approving the gardens would create scores of new jobs and bring much-needed revenue to the city. Additionally, Halter said, it would provide a facelift to the city’s identity with the same amount of significance that Golden Gate Park has for San Francisco.