There are times when we’re forced to seek shelter in the absurd and the imbecilic. We live in such times now. In this context, thank God — who, by the way, now goes by a plural pronoun — for the Santa Barbara City Council’s recent debate over grass. Should Hotel Californian developer Mike Rosenfeld be required to replace the synthetic Astroturf he had installed in the so-called public plaza of his new five-star hotel at the bottom of State Street with living buffalo grass, as required by his 2014 permit?
As usual, the real issue was all about women in high heels. And tax dollars. As in more of them.
But the faux environmental argument — in which the virtues of real grass were pitted against those of fake grass — was pretty exciting too. As expected, the council rolled over and played deader than a dog getting its belly tickled. It was, after all, the reasonable thing to do. That’s because hotel developer Rosenfeld is a reasonable guy. Shortly before last week’s meeting, at least five members of the council had met personally with Rosenfeld himself or with his attorney, Doug Fell, to discuss the matter. And Fell may be even more reasonable than Rosenfeld.
Leading the charge against the Astroturf was Steve Hausz, an architect and longtime member of the Historic Landmarks Commission. Hausz, who typically radiates a brisk intelligence infused with ironic bemusement, was a man on fire. Rosenfeld’s Astroturf was clearly the last of many straws that have long been conspiring to break Hausz’s back. That he found himself forced to make so self-evident a case — in Santa Barbara, birthplace of the environmental movement, no less — only added to Hausz’s excruciating sense of anguish.
In September, Rosenfeld and Fell sought after-the-fact permission for the Astroturf they’d already installed at the hotel’s public plaza located by State and Mason streets. The Historic Landmarks Commission denied that request by a 4-to-3 vote. For the record, it should be stipulated that Astroturf “lawns” are sufficiently cheesy to induce violent mucoid reactions in even the most lactose tolerant among us. But the hotel’s public plaza is sufficiently set back from the street — behind a double phalanx of baby palm trees — and slightly elevated — you have to walk up a “flight” of four baby steps to get there — to not qualify as in-your-face insulting to the casual walker-by. As publically inviting as the plaza may or may not be, it’s really designed for private weddings and other special events to make money for the new hotel. The booking of such events, Fell argued, would be inhibited by the UC Verde strain of drought-tolerant buffalo grass that Rosenfeld’s permit required. Such grass, he noted, was not reliably green without significant irrigation, and well-watered buffalo grass was decidedly not hospitable to women walking in high heels. Hence the compelling need for Astroturf. Fell, who has worked with three separate developers for nearly 30 years to get this hotel built, took exception to any implied insinuation of “bait and switch.” Buffalo grass, he argued, was just not functional.
Hausz noted that Astroturf gives rise to scorching thermal islands when hit with steady solar exposure; lawns, by contrast, create a cooling effect. That heat, he argued, radiates down into the soil as well, killing off any critters there. Synthetic lawns, he argued, degrade over time into microscopic synthetic particles, which, he warned, would be washed out to sea when hotel staff hosed down the plastic pseudo-turf to flush out any remnant food crumbs that wedding guests will inevitably spill, whether wearing high heels or not. Anything that evolved over the eons to withstand stampeding buffalo, he argued, had to be functional. Somehow Hausz failed to mention that critics of high heels have noted the shoes are engineered to contort women’s backs and butts in such a manner as to further accentuate their attractiveness to the transgressive male gaze. It would have done no good.
Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss noted that while he himself had never personally worn high heels, he understood they may be problematic for anyone trying to get around on a “soft, mushy” surface. “He would have us save the planet,” Hotchkiss said dismissively of Hausz. “We’re trying to save the project.” More to the point, Hotchkiss said, “It’s more taxes to the city,” adding he didn’t want to put it so crudely. It’s worth noting City Hall issued a press release this week, announcing bed taxes had just gone up after many moons of steady decline. The release alluded to the opening of a new hotel as a possible explanation. It didn’t have to say which one.
Most philosophically intriguing, Councilmember Jason Dominguez questioned just how “fake” Astroturf could really be in a city where everything — Spanish-style buildings, potted plants — was already so make-believe. Real lawns, he added, require real water, real pesticides, and real fertilizers. How environmentally superior can they be? I get the point, but any line of argument that concludes synthetic Astroturf is better is an argument that has been so sufficiently tortured it is now a case for Amnesty International.
Only councilmember and mayor-elect Cathy Murillo cast a dissenting vote. “Desert flowers are beautiful,” she said, arguing, however subliminally, that popular notions of outdoor esthetics and beauty need to accommodate stubborn climatic realities. Maybe Rosenfeld and Fell should have met with Murillo.
Councilmember Dominguez asked the best question but failed to follow through. What about possible mitigations? he wondered. What indeed, especially for a developer seeking after-the-fact forgiveness when he should have sought permission up front. I’d have asked Rosenfeld to lease the Astroturf plaza to city lawn-bowling leagues, free of charge, during downtimes. At the very least, it would bring some warm bodies down there.
In the meantime, beware of high heels in buffalo grass.