No Dog but Dog

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.”


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