HOT ENUFF FOR YA? The mayor was sporting a pale orange gardenia in her hair the size of a big man’s fist. Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss wore a black Gente de Rason jacket with matching string tie; Grant House showed up in a form-fitting gray-and-salmon-colored gentleman’s jacket. The extended brim of Michael Self’s quasi-bolero hat all but obliterated her face, and Councilmember Dale Francisco had given his hair permission to grow beyond the crisp confines of his customary crew cut. It’s Fiesta time, when Santa Barbara en masse looks back — often through the thick-lensed bottom of a tequila bottle — to a past that famously never was. Written into the bylaws of the city General Plan is a requirement that the mayor and council observe the occasion by partying “like it’s 1999.” Given that the council was attempting to re-vamp this General Plan — the equivalent of the Bible, the Constitution, and the Da Vinci Code when it comes to growth and development — there was something oddly wonderful about the collision of past and present taking place. Watching the deliberations, I couldn’t tell whether the council was looking back into the future or marching forward into the past. If we’re lucky, it won’t matter. But if we’re not, we’ll all be frozen forever in the present.
Strewn all over the council dais Tuesday afternoon were the guts and gristle of a possible new General Plan. The councilmembers’ task was to reassemble the pieces, zap the new creature with a bolt of lightning, and make this monster walk. I was on hand as a morbid connoisseur of slow-moving train wrecks. The General Plan Update, as it’s known, has been five years and $3 million in the making. Tuesday marked the first time the councilmembers could really wallow in the guts of the matter. For anything to pass, a minimum of five votes is required. But as a matter of reflex and ideology, the council is split 4-to-3.
The New School liberal-progressive majority (Mayor Helene Schneider plus councilmembers Bendy White, House, and Das Williams) believe climate change, unlike Santa Claus, is very real, that the car exhaust generated by 30,000 workers who commute daily to and from Santa Barbara makes it worse, and that city hall should help by making more housing more affordable so fewer people have to commute. This can be done only by allowing greater housing densities downtown than current zoning allows, but only for smaller units, not the dread Mondo Condos favored by the über-rich. They regard the car as a necessary evil from which all right-minded people should want to be saved. To the extent city hall can stop pampering the automobile with free parking and other perks, the cause of civilization will be furthered. And to the extent developers are allowed to provide fewer parking spaces, housing can be produced more cheaply. On the flip side is the Old-School, Slow-Growth, Not-in-My-Neighborhood minority (Francisco, Self, and Hotchkiss). Francisco and Self are conservative Republicans, Self is a Decline to State voter. In general, they regard global warming as a silly hoax perpetrated by anti-automobile zealots and authoritarian dreamers. If there actually are real problems, technology will fix them. It always has. The car, after all, has been the engine of American economic prosperity and remains the ultimate expression of personal freedom. They’ll give up their cars — Self has a collection of ten, and she’s named each one — only when city hall pries the car keys out of their cold dead fingers. And they don’t like density for all the obvious reasons. Past generations fought the good fight to keep development in check, and they are intensely protective of Santa Barbara’s small-town feel. Besides, nothing has ever made Santa Barbara housing remotely affordable, and nothing ever will. So why bother? More density will only achieve more crime and more congestion.
Finding five votes in this context remains technically possible. But then it’s also possible to pin a greased pig in a wrestling match. Perhaps it was the Fiesta wear, but the councilmembers exhibited little appetite for the grunting and grappling required this Tuesday. Hotchkiss frequently reminded the mayor that the “witching hour” was approaching. Maybe he had a party to attend. If a compromise is to be had, chances are it will be Francisco who makes it happen. But another day. On Tuesday, Francisco took the opportunity to needle his eco-minded colleagues with the apparent contradictions of their more-housing, less-global warming agenda. According to the environmental analysis of the proposed general plan changes, global warming could cause sea levels to rise and salt water to infiltrate our groundwater supplies rendering them unusable. And certainly global warming would diminish the reliability of deliveries of water via the State Water system to Santa Barbara, which is already notoriously unreliable. Those two water sources, Francisco pointed out, comprise 20 percent of the city’s water supply. If they were gone, city hall wouldn’t have enough water to supply its existing customers, let alone accommodate all the new housing the increased density advocates want to see built. It was a nice point — and one that the city’s Water Commission has tried repeatedly to make though with little success. Councilmember Williams, who has taken it upon himself to be the yin to Francisco’s yang, countered that Santa Barbara’s groundwater basins were sufficiently inland that it would take a cataclysmic rise in the sea levels to contaminate them. At that point, he suggested groundwater intrusion would be the least of Santa Barbara’s problems. City planner Betty Weiss added that such prognostications were too “speculative” to form the basis of planning considerations in the next 20 years. Francisco, a skeptic where climate change is concerned, clearly enjoyed Weiss’s choice of language. As stunts go, it was neatly executed. Francisco got to use climate change as a rhetorical foil, against people who care about the issue deeply, to undermine their arguments that increased densities were necessary to counter global warming. He had reason to look like the cat that ate the canary. The only thing missing was the feathers around his mouth. And perhaps, in honor of the festivities, a flamenco flourish afterward. In the meantime, have yourself a very merry Viva-La. And if you’re wondering why we’ve gotten San Francisco’s weather this summer, I’m sure it has nothing to do with climate change.