The Long Search for a New Purpose
More than a decade has passed since the North Tahoe Fire District moved its headquarters to Fairway Drive behind the gas stations in Tahoe City. Still, the building at the gateway to Commons Beach that housed the fire department from 1961 to 2012 remains vacant.
Despite numerous efforts to fill the lakefront space, it has sat empty for the past 11 years. Over the course of this period, at least eight organizations have submitted concepts through two rounds of requests for proposals — one in 2012 and another in 2017.
But for three years, discussions about the space went dormant. That all changed in May 2022 when Climate and Wildfire Institute (CWI) — a young nonprofit with aspirations to connect science to public policy and decision-making — wrote a letter to Placer County inquiring about the space for its headquarters. The letter asked, “we are formally requesting that the Placer County Board of Supervisors consider our request that the County donate the property to CWI so that CWI may renovate the building for use both as headquarters/office space and for publicly accessible display and presentation space related to the work and subject matter of the Institute.”
Since receiving that letter, Placer County has eagerly sought to re-engage in discussions about the space, but some community members raise concerns about the county’s approval process and question if CWI is the right fit.
How did we get here?
To fully understand the events of the past decade, it’s necessary to look back nearly two centuries to 1871, when just 15 people called the town we now know as Tahoe City home. When subdividing the land, this group designated the Commons Beach area “public commons,” which, in modern-day lingo, translates to mean that the land was granted to the people, and it is to be held by the local government agency. Determining which agency that is proved to be tricky.
For the next century, the responsibility for Commons Beach alternated between Placer County and Tahoe City Public Utility District. In 1976, a quitclaim deed granted the TCPUD the rights to Commons Beach.
The nuance of a quitclaim deed is that it transfers nothing more than interest the grantor may have — may being the key word. It does not guarantee that the grantor had any real or actual rights or interest in the property to begin with.
So, when the fire station became vacant in 2012, it was at the hands of the TCPUD to start the discussion about what the space could be. They hosted a design charrette that resulted in four initial concepts. These concepts ranged in scope and cost from a $4 million project that included an addition to the existing North Tahoe Arts Center and decorative fountain to a $25 million proposal for a cultural attraction that blended information, education, and entertainment.
None of those concepts came to fruition, and the conversation turned seemingly quiet until Placer County approached the TCPUD, stating that it was, in fact, the legal steward of Commons Beach.
After cordial back and forth and opinions from attorneys on both sides, the TCPUD came to the same conclusion the county had come to — the 4.7-acre Commons Beach parcel belonged to Placer County. To formalize this decision, the TCPUD filed two more quitclaim deeds relinquishing any legal rights they had to the county. The first happened in 2013 for the fire station, and the second in 2017 for the adjacent buildings.
Then, with full control of both the land and the buildings, Placer County reignited the process of trying to fill the vacant fire station.
Placer County takes the driver’s seat
One of the county’s first steps was to conduct a community survey to garner what the people of North Lake Tahoe wanted out of the space. That 2017 survey yielded 436 responses. The second question asked, “Which TWO of the following indoor space options would be the most valuable addition to Tahoe City?”
The top three responses — with 28.1%, 27.8%, and 25.6% of the vote, respectively — were art complexes, indoor recreation facilities, and food/beverage options. Meeting rooms and gathering spaces, a concept that came in fifth at 17.2%, seems most closely aligned with CWI’s vision.
Also in 2017, the county began holding public meetings and issued a second Request for Information (RFI) for the still-vacant space. And it was at one of these public meetings that Christin Hanna, Renee Koijane, Abigail Gallup, and Robb Olsen formed the group that would eventually become Siren Arts.
“We were all asking similar questions at a meeting about the future of the old firehouse and decided to work together,” Hanna said. “We were a group of like-minded individuals who saw the potential in using this building as a multi-use community space that celebrated the arts. We called ourselves Siren Arts because we thought of its double meaning — both the sirens of a fire brigade but also the reference to the sirens in Greek mythology … with alluring voices.”
This next round of RFIs assembled four concepts by early 2018, of which Siren Arts was one, along with Commonwell, the Museum of Ski History, and The Public House.
Proposals from Siren Arts and Commonwell were marked as favorable in 2019, yet a feasibility study found both projects not financially viable but offered next steps for how the groups could stay in the discussion.
According to Siren Arts, its proposal included renting the space from Placer County for a nominal fee. The idea of donating the property, as asked by CWI in its 2022 letter of interest, was never discussed.
The project then sat dormant again for three years — partially a result of Covid-19 and, according to Hanna, multiple unanswered emails from Siren Arts to Placer County about the next steps. She estimates the team behind Siren Arts spent approximately 8,000 pro bono hours on this project between 2016 and 2020.
Finally, in July 2022, Hanna, Gallup, Koijane, and Olson got an email from Cindy Gustafson, Placer County supervisor for District 5, that she had an update about the firehouse project.
“I was excited they had an update and assumed the county was picking up where we left off prior to Covid-19, following up on environmental studies and dig tests,” Hanna said. “But during the Zoom meeting, we learned that the county would be pursuing a new proposal from Climate and Wildfire Institute.”
A new player in the game
The 2022 letter of interest from CWI stated that Supervisor Gustafson (who worked with the property’s former steward, TCPUD, from 1991 through 2017), “graciously identified the old fire station in Tahoe City as a possible location for the Institute’s Headquarters.”
It also stated that “The genesis for the new Institute came in part from the Tahoe Fund in a long- term strategy and planning session.”
At the Oct. 25, 2022 board meeting, Stephanie Holloway, Placer County deputy chief executive officer, introduced the Placer County supervisors to CWI. The culmination of her presentation was a proposal that the county enter into a non-exclusive right to negotiate with the fledgling nonprofit. This means that both Placer County and CWI had the opportunity to discuss a potential agreement without commitment.
Holloway’s proposal was followed by a brief presentation from Caroline Godkin, executive director at CWI. Eight community members then made public comments, split half in favor and half opposed.
The opposed residents voiced concerns around the swift involvement of CWI in the agreement and expressed worry about the nonprofit’s lack of endorsement from fire agencies.
“We are missing one key step; we haven’t gone through the public outreach process … It seems out of step with what would normally happen at a public use space. If we don’t do that, I think we are saying that Placer County and the government no longer require a public process,” Koijane of Siren Arts said during public comment. “It would give us more trust as a community to know that local, state, and federal firefighting agencies are endorsing them.”
And Siren Arts remains unsure why they have not been included in recent discussions.
“I am frustrated that Placer County wouldn’t connect the dots and introduce CWI to us when they first came on the scene because our proposed multi-use facility is exactly what CWI staff and Board Member Art Chapman outlined they were in need of in meetings in the fall, so why weren’t we introduced initially so they could be collaborators?,” Hanna said “For no apparent reason, we’ve been pushed aside.”
The exciting opportunity would be a space to convene, to educate, and to create linkages between academia, policy makers, practitioners; but critically, the communities that are living in the Basin.”
~ Caroline Godkin, Climate and Wildfire Institute
While others, including Samir Tuma, developer for the Tahoe City Lodge Project and North Tahoe Community Alliance board member, have stressed that CWI’s early concept is aligned with the community’s needs and should be given careful consideration.
“I cannot think of anything more poignant to where we are as a state and a region than the importance of focusing on education and information around wildfire,” Tuma said during public comment. “They [CWI] bring an opportunity to help educate and to create an environment where that [education] actually becomes an attraction for locals and visitors to go to and become informed … And the fact that they come with funding, and some good-sized funding, is important.”
After a few points of clarification between the board, Holloway, and Godkin, the supervisors voted in favor of the CWI agreement, with four members in favor and one abstaining. District 4 Supervisor Suzanne Jones, who describes herself as “fairly new on the board,” abstained after expressing concern prompted by public comment.
“I think there has been some misunderstanding that the board has committed to them [CWI],” Holloway said. “What the board has committed is to allow them to work with us to put together a proposal for the utilization of the firehouse and/or a partnership for some sort of redevelopment of the property.”
Much is still up in the air. The 2019 feasibility study of Siren Arts and Commonwell identified professional offices as not within zoning regulations for the location, along with hotels and hostels. But, according to the Placer County Tahoe Basin Area Plan, the space is zoned for mixed-use which includes professional offices. The county emphasizes that it is uncertain exactly what CWI will propose, but anticipates it will fall more into the category of a community gathering place, according to Steven Wilson-Maggard, Placer County’s public information assistant.
“Overall, Placer County is looking to create a community-useful and educational space,” he said.”
Who is CWI?
Climate and Wildfire Institute was formed in 2021 with a mission to “accelerate science into the hands of policymakers and practitioners and try to answer these critical questions around climate and wildfire,” said Caroline Godkin, executive director of the nonprofit, who joined the team in 2022.
Also in 2022, CWI received $7 million from the State of California, which Godkin refers to as “seed money.” Most recently, some of this money is being used to support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Wildfire & Forest Resilience Task Force, which includes the creation of a forest treatment tracking system and a needs analysis for a federated data system.
CWI also funded the creation of regional resource kits in the form of data sets for land managers to use when thinking about the complexities of getting forest treatments on the ground. According to Bethany Hannah, deputy director at CWI, “regional resources kits have been developed and released for the Sierra Nevada and Southern California regions.” While the regional resource kit page on the wildfire taskforce website does not list CWI as a collaborator, Godkin said her organization is funding the two staff members — Pete Stein and Carol Clark as well as some additional pieces of support. She also mentioned that CWI board member and EPA Science Advisory Panel co-chair Professor John Battles is one of the leads for the taskforce on the kits.
We are more in the driver’s seat than we have been in the past.”
~ Stephanie Holloway, Placer County deputy chief executive officer
As far as the space itself goes, Godkin says the $7 million from the state is separate from the funds CWI would use to renovate the existing fire station. “It has always been our intention that we would fundraise separately for this building, and fundraising director is next on my list of hires,” Godkin said about CWI’s funding model for the renovations. The nonprofit also aspires to work with an architect who donates their time to the project, as discussed in their 2022 letter of interest.
“I’m not thinking about it as traditional office spaces,” Godkin said. “We want to create a very flexible space and have a space we can use for convenings, but can also potentially serve other needs when we’re not using it for convenings. I know the county and community are very interested in art and how art is integrated into what we’re doing. That’s really important to me.”
Yet some members of the community still feel that CWI is not the right fit and worry about the organization’s lack of a proven track record. As of April 2023, CWI has yet to hire an architect or engineer and their website references most project and initiatives in the future tense.
But the organization is enthusiastic about the possibility of moving into the old fire station space. Their website has a dedicated page that reads “CWI Headquarters in Tahoe City” and includes a photo of Godkin and Art Chapman, founder of JMA Ventures and a CWI board member. Chapman is also on the council of special advisors for the Tahoe Fund, which served as a genesis for CWI.
“This is a world-class place and a place where we all derive inspiration, but also somewhere we can see the on-the-ground impacts of climate change,” Godkin said when explaining why CWI has their sights set on Tahoe City. “For me, the exciting opportunity would be a space to convene, to educate, and to create linkages between academia, policy makers, practitioners; but critically, the communities that are living in the Basin. And, honestly, it is a destination for folks who would be excited to be here and would be excited to experience this.”
What happens next?
There is still a long way to go, but the county seems eager to engage with CWI and does not have plans to open another RFI.
“That is an old model,” Holloway said when asked about the possibility of the county issuing another call for proposals. “The county is very much engaged, and we have our facilities department engaged. There may be RFPs out for professional support to help, such as architects and engineers, but we are more in the driver’s seat than we have been in the past.”
I have wanted to step back several times out of sheer frustration and dumbfoundedness at the entire process, but I’m a bit of a Ted Lasso, I don’t quit.”
~ Christin Hanna, Siren Arts
During the Oct. 25 board meeting, Gustafson cited the Envision Tahoe initiative as an example for why the board considers CWI a good fit for the fire station. She emphasized that, according to the Envision Tahoe Prosperity Playbook for which she was a co-chair, the expansion of economic vitality throughout the Tahoe Basin is closely linked to science and health.
“Arts probably cannot carry this [space] on its own,” Gustafson said at that same board meeting. “There are other community centers for some of the needs … here is an opportunity to look at the science and health needs in conjunction with other opportunities … and we need spaces. We need indoor spaces in this region.”
So, as part of the non-exclusive agreement, CWI’s proposal is due to the Placer County Board of Supervisors by the end of 2023. In the meantime, the county is working with a private consulting agency out of Sacramento, Integrated Communications Strategy (ICS), to assess the feasibility of what is possible at the site.
The $42,500 agreement between the county and ICS — whose local client list includes Envision Tahoe and the Placer County Air Pollution Control District — outlines nine distinct tasks with multiple deadlines approaching at the end of May.
One item due at the end of the month: an executive summary that “synthesize community input by theme, frequency, and intensity,” and summarizes “key findings and considerations for the County and CWI, including community engagement next steps.”
“I’m targeting the July meeting that the board will be in Tahoe to provide a briefing of that report,” Holloway said.
In the meantime, and as part of their task list, ICS has scheduled meetings with the key stakeholders identified by Placer County. These groups and individuals include District 5 Supervisor Cindy Gustafson; the Tahoe Fund; University of California, Davis; Caroline Godkin; Julie Regan, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency; Heidi Hill Drum, Tahoe Property Center; Josh Ramsey, North Tahoe Public Utility District; Katie Biggers, Tahoe City Downtown Association; Tony Karwowski, North Tahoe Community Alliance; Gavin Feiger, League to Save Lake Tahoe; Sierra Business Council; and Siren Arts.
Despite the involvement of community stakeholders, concerns remain about Placer County fast-tracking CWI’s utilization of the space, and their lack of consideration for past, still interested, parties.
“I’m staying in the game because I care about this community, Tahoe City’s downtown and its residents need a place to celebrate and be celebrated,” Hanna said. “Integrated Communication Strategies is the fourth set of consultants I have worked with on this project, and I am working as a free consultant on behalf of the people who live in Tahoe. I have wanted to step back several times out of sheer frustration and dumbfoundedness at the entire process, but I’m a bit of a Ted Lasso, I don’t quit.”
~ Ally Gravina is a freelance journalist and former Moonshine editor based in Graeagle. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in arts and culture reporting.