OUTER LIMITS: With a cinnamon-colored pit bull charging at me, I found myself contemplating sudden doubts about the wisdom of my unannounced visit. It was approaching 7:30 last Tuesday morning; the light crackled with all the stunning clarity that follows a long, hard rain; and I was checking out the Plaza Inn by State and La Cumbre, a flea-bag flop-house for those who’ve run out of luck to be down on. Although I’ve known many a sweet pit bull, I still regard the breed as the canine equivalent of a drive-by shooting. I did my best to appear stern and commanding. When the dog’s owner — a friendly, stocky man with an old mountain bike — appeared from around the corner, he just chuckled. His name was Juan Ramirez, but everyone knew him as Rocky. He introduced me to his dog, Spice. I had come to see if the old motel was as bad as people said. And to hear residents’ thoughts on architect Barry Berkus’s plans to knock it down and build a new three-story mixed-use project with 55 condos. One of those bigger-than-life, craggy-faced charismatic visionaries, Berkus is always talking about creating “community” and building “urban villages” where people of all incomes, races, and sexual predilections can live together harmoniously. When Barry starts singing, it’s hard not to hum along. Especially when he gets to the part about designing projects to make it easy for people to walk, ride their bikes, or take the bus where they need to go. But Rocky wasn’t buying it. “They say they want to build a community. But we already have a community,” he snorted, his arms opening wide to encompass the small motel parking lot notably uncluttered by cars. That’s because most of the residents already walk, ride their bikes, or take the bus. They have to. They can’t afford cars. As a result, residents use the parking lot as a courtyard gathering place. Sometimes, Rocky said, he’ll drag his big-screen TV outside so everyone can get together and watch movies or football games. An in-home care provider, Rocky said, “Everyone here is dependent on everyone else.” Rocky tends to a woman who worked 23 years as a cook for UCSB, the school district, and some private schools, too. But when her personal demons got the best of her — coupled with some serious medical problems — she wound up on the street. While the Plaza Inn has provided Rocky’s client a low-rent refuge from the storms, it’s far from ideal. Rats the size of cats fight inside the walls at night. Residents debate which infestation is worse: fleas or cockroaches. Rocky said he keeps a baseball bat to chase away thieves who prey on the sick and the poor. But his bat doesn’t help much when the sewers back up every few weeks. When that happens, there’s nothing the least bit festive about the confetti of used-toilet-paper scraps that spread out over the parking lot. Rocky, Spice, and the other Plaza Inn residents emerged as political pawns in last week’s marathon showdown between Berkus and the city’s slow-growth crowd. Many crocodile tears were shed on behalf of the poor tenants and their need for relocation assistance. While their cause was righteous, I suspect many of the people shedding such tears would call the police if Rocky or other Plaza Inn residents were to cross their path. The fact is Berkus’s relocation plan — however late in coming — was a lot more generous than Rocky or anyone expected. But the fact also is that even with all that money, there are few — if any — places where people with such afflictions can go. No doubt that’s why city inspectors didn’t shut down the Plaza Inn a long time ago. Ultimately, the council denied Berkus’s bid to build 55 new condos — 17 of which would have been affordable. Maybe he was done in by the neighborhood opposition. I suspect he was really done in by himself. When Berkus makes an architectural statement, he has a tendency to shout. Where other developers seek to fly under the radar, Barry has a tendency to soar above it. Around City Hall, there’s grumbling about the grandiosity of Barry’s vision. There’s even more grumbling about how some of his projects looked much bigger when built than they ever did on the drawing boards. Nor did it help Barry that his traffic engineers — and City Hall’s as well — insist the project would actually improve the congestion on upper State Street when such bland assurances fly directly in the face of common sense. With the council’s action, Berkus and other would-be developers of upper State Street now find themselves consigned to a bureaucratic limbo where the rules are uncertain. But that’s nothing compared to the uncertainty confronting Berkus’s tenants. In the coming weeks, City Hall will generate new regulations requiring developers to provide dislocated tenants with some form of relocation assistance. It remains uncertain if that’s enough to help the people now living at the Plaza Inn. What’s really needed is the creation of new housing for those struggling not to fall over the precipice. The county reportedly has conducted an exhaustive study showing that it’s dramatically cheaper to bite the bullet and provide accommodations to the chronically homeless than it is to deliver services in the current scattershot fashion without also providing a decent place to live. As Rocky will tell you, the emergency room costs incurred by people forced to live on the streets are astronomical. And jailhouse therapy for the mentally ill has never been cheap or effective. That study should have been released weeks ago; people are beginning to wonder if something happened to it. Rocky didn’t know anything about that report. He just knew that his client wasn’t asking for anything. For 23 years, she paid into the system. Now she needed help. “She’s already done her time on the streets,” he said. “They all have.” With that, Rocky got on his bike and rode off, with Spice trotting behind. “I’m going to look at the creek,” he said with a big smile. “I always check out the creeks after a rain.”
No Dog but Dog
Thursday, March 9, 2006
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