After more than a dozen years of uncertainty and bureaucratic roadblocks, College of Marin officials this week unveiled its first actual conceptual plans to rebuild the shuttered Bolinas Marine Lab along the Bolinas Lagoon in West Marin.
“This is prestigious for the College of Marin and it benefits the lagoon,” said Rudi Ferris of the Bolinas Lagoon Advisory Council, one of about 45 people at a public meeting Wednesday in Bolinas. “Under all those circumstances, this is one of the most wonderful developments I’ve seen.”
COM biology instructor Joe Mueller, who spearheaded efforts to restore the field station after it was closed in 2006 because of deterioration and safety concerns, said it was “amazing how many people are behind this.” In early 2018, he and others organized the Bolinas Marine Lab Coalition, a group of faculty, community members and science alumni, to support preservation and restoration of the field station.
“We’re really excited,” Mueller said Wednesday. “There’s no other place in the world like this.”
The plans, presented by architect Lance Kutz of Perkins Eastman in Oakland, call for all three existing structures at the site at 72 Wharf Road across from the lagoon to be demolished. In their place, contractors would build a 2,300-square-foot, one-story structure to include classrooms, equipment storage space and faculty offices. All seven existing parking spaces would be maintained — and could likely continue to be used by the community when college-related activities are not taking place, said College of Marin President David Wain Coon.
The estimate for both demolition and construction was $3 million — a “pleasant surprise,” he said.
“I thought it would be a lot higher than that,” Wain Coon added. Financing would come from voter-approved bond money and some private contributions.
“When we were last out here (two years ago), we believed that it was unlikely that we could use part of our Measure B funds,” Wain Coon told the group. “We have established that, in fact, we can actually use a portion of our Measure B funds — and some private dollars to enhance that.”
Wain Coon cautioned that it was not yet a done deal, since the project still needed a series of environmental and construction approvals from the county, the Coastal Commission and possibly the state. COM vice president Greg Nelson said the timeline for the approval process would likely be at least a year, even if no major objections or hurdles emerge.
“We just wanted to get a project in place that we could push down the path, push it as far as we can, and hopefully we’ll have a positive outcome,” Wain Coon said.
Built in 1914 as the Bolinas Bay Lifeboat Station and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Wharf Road site was purchased by what was then the Marin Junior College District in 1955. The complex includes a two-story, 3,333-square-foot house with two libraries, two offices and a kitchen, as well as a separate laboratory. All of those structures would be razed under the plans unveiled Wednesday.
The lab hosted a College of Marin course in marine biology until 2004, and a children’s summer science program until 2005. The complex was officially shuttered in 2006.
Wednesday’s exuberance was in vivid contrast to earlier meetings where engineering, legal and seismic experts told COM that the field station was an environmental hazard and should be abandoned rather than spend millions to fix it up. In addition to the building deterioration and concerns about the instability of the structures, the field station was considered at risk due to earthquakes — since it rests near the San Andreas fault — landslides from the bluff immediately behind it, asbestos, tsunamis and toxic mold.
“We were so frustrated with the building as it was,” said Ralph Camiccia, a member of the Bolinas Lab Advisory Council. “The only advantage to the community was that we used their parking spaces.” The community also uses the college-owned dock across Wharf Road from the lab for access to the lagoon. The dock and its use by the community would not be affected by the new construction, officials said.
Since 2006, various groups have tried to rally the college and community toward restoration, but those efforts were marred by doubts that state laws might prohibit construction or that bond financing would be blocked due to the proximity of the earthquake fault lines. In 2017, the college was considering declaring the facility as surplus property and donating it to Bolinas for use as a community center, rather than deal with all the legal and financial hurdles.
But Mueller and other faculty assembled a lengthy research report on the project. Their research established that those legal and financial concerns were unwarranted.
“The faculty still maintains that there’s no legal or program or financial impediments to this project,” Mueller said Wednesday, Wain Coon, who met with faculty on numerous occasions, also researched the issue and came to the same conclusion, he told college trustees last year.
Relatives of COM science teacher Al Molina, who co-founded the marine lab program along with science instructor and resarcher Gordon Chan in the early 1960s, were pleased Wednesday that their ancestors’ legacy will not be lost.
“Al Molina and Gordon Chan would be very proud,” said Joe Horton, husband of Molina’s daughter, Karyn Molina-Press of Petaluma.
“We’re really excited about this project coming to fruition finally,” Molina-Press said. “I’m excited to go to the next step. We’re going to push this thing through.”
Nelson said the next step would be preliminary submissions to county staff. Marin Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who has coordinated the public outreach between the college and the community of Bolinas for several years, was in the audience Wednesday.
“I’m really pleased with the progress the college has made in addressing the community’s interest in removing a blight in the town, (which) will be possible with the COM plan,” Rodoni said in an email. “And what a treasure — having an science lab in that location.”