CLASH OF THE TITANS: Okay, so it wasn’t Godzilla vs. Mothra, Alien vs. Predator, or even the Mummy vs. the Wolf Man. But by Santa Barbara standards, it was easily the next best thing: John Davies vs. Marshall Rose. Or perhaps John Davies versus the world, which is probably how it seemed at 7:30 a.m. just a few Thursdays ago. What had been billed as a long-awaited PowerPoint wonk fest on how best to get downtown employees to bus, bike, walk, or carpool to work quickly degenerated into a verbal smackdown worthy of the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s pre-fight theatrics. In one corner was Marshall Rose, the big and burly head of the Downtown Organization as well as the Downtown Parking Committee. Rose sits on the board of every civic-minded organization in town, but his real claim to fame is the new Granada Parking Garage. Were it not for Rose’s lobbying — relentless and urgent — it’s doubtful the new $26 million, 525-space Taj Mahal would have ever been built. In the other corner was political consultant-advertising guru John Davies, Santa Barbara’s version of Karl Rove and the Wizard of Oz. For the past 15 years, Davies has been insisting he’s getting out of politics, claiming instead the practice of such ethereal abstractions as “branding,” “imagineering,” and “perceptioneering.” Whatever he calls it, however, everything Davies does is political. Over the years, Davies’s talents have helped secure political approval for projects like the Bacara, Ty Warner’s Biltmore renovation, Bill Levy’s impending Ritzification of lower State Street, various oil and gas projects, Westmont’s expansion, Brooks Firestone’s many elections, and most currently, Dan Secord’s campaign for 2nd District supervisor. Because of this client list — and his penchant for attack-dog politics — Davies has become the man many liberals and Democratic activists love to hate.
Me, I’ve always liked John. He’s smart, enthusiastic, and curious; besides, he stirs it up. On most normal days, Davies and Rose are on the same side; the two are working together, for example, on Cottage Hospital’s expansion project. But the Thursday in question was hardly normal. On that day, Davies was scheduled to appear at a joint meeting of the arcane but politically powerful Downtown Parking Committee and the Transportation Circulation Committee to unveil the results of a transportation survey City Hall paid him $96,000 to get. Based on their understanding of Davies’s contract with City Hall, Rose, his fellow commissioners, and city transportation planners had expected Davies to find out exactly how many people worked downtown. They also expected Davies to conduct a survey to determine how downtown employees got to work and what it would take to get them out of their cars. To this end, they expected Davies’s crew to go door-to-door to get an accurate employee head count. Up to now, no one has known exactly how many people worked downtown; estimates vary from 10,000 to 23,000. That gap could have significant implications for how much parking and traffic the city needs to accommodate. But Davies never went door-to-door, preferring instead to purchase employee lists from Dun & Bradstreet, who reported that there were 17,323 workers toiling in downtown Santa Barbara. This seriously pissed off Rose and crew. That’s not what the contract called for, they objected. One downtown banker on the committee noted that the Dun & Bradstreet figures drastically underreported the number of people working at his bank. Others lodged similar objections. They got angrier still as Davies sought to present the survey results based on extensive interviews with 400 downtown workers. The PowerPoint presentation was confusing, they complained. There was no report they could hold and look at. One committee member told Davies in no uncertain terms that his presentation flat-out sucked. Davies responded by getting red, redder, and redder still. About the time smoke started pouring out his ears, Davies began lambasting City Hall staff as being incompetent, stupid, and inept. He charged the real reason committee members were mad was because he wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. It’s still not clear what he meant by that. By the time Davies pulled the plug and folded up his laptop, he vowed never to work for City Hall again. It warn’t pretty.
Far more startling was Davies’s shocking finding that only 46 percent of downtown workers drove alone. That means 54 percent carpooled, walked, took the bus, or rode their bikes. If this is true, it qualifies as stop-the-presses news that would give Santa Barbara environmental bragging rights it hasn’t had since the oil spill in 1969. These numbers are roughly on par with UCSB’s, where about 10,000 students ride their bikes everywhere. But in cities throughout Southern California, the drive-alone rate is more typically 80 to 90 percent. Although Davies’s survey work has always been his strength, these results are so at odds with county census figures and other surveys that you have to really wonder. Certainly these surprising results served to heighten suspicion about Davies’s work. Davies concluded that the ride-alone crowd wouldn’t change its ways as long as so much free or subsidized parking was available. Davies said you could get people out of their cars if you charged more for parking. But if you charged enough to chase away workers, maybe they would go get jobs elsewhere. Or maybe you’d chase away shoppers, too. Maybe this made committee members uncomfortable. Or maybe it was Davies’s suggestion that if employers didn’t want employees to drive alone, they should pay them to bike, bus, or carpool. I like that idea. It might actually work. Cottage Hospital is preparing to pay its workers $70 a month not to drive alone.
In the meantime, Davies has a serious problem of his own that he can’t “perceptioneer” his way out of. Not if he wants to get paid the $21,000 City Hall still owes him. Maybe John’s fracas with Marshall Rose was just one of those male hormonal eruptions that send otherwise sensible silverbacks into fits of fury. Or maybe such anger is an inevitable consequence when you talk about weaning people from their cars. In the meantime, I’ll be watching reruns of Godzilla vs. Mothra on my car VCR while hanging out in the basement of the Granada Garage. I hear it’s nice and dark down there.
— Nick Welsh