The times, they are a-changin’ – at least as far as Isla Vista is concerned. In the past few weeks there have been stories all over the local media that directly impact Isla Vista and its residents. First, there was the passage of the I.V. Master Plan and the announcement that, thanks to the subsequent rezoning of the area, our little piece of predominantly-collegiate paradise could soon become home to enough low-income housing units to satisfy all of the county’s state-mandated low-income housing requirements. Then there was the announcement that the infamous Conquest Student Housing – best-known for evicting a bunch of families from one of their newly-acquired apartment complexes in 2006 – is being sued by USC for allegedly engaging in racketeering, abusive litigation, extortion, fraud, and intimidation. And, all of this was punctuated by Friday’s announcement that Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone – affectionately referred to by those of us whose college careers have been spent interviewing him as Brooksie – is not running for reelection next year.
It’s only fitting that Brooksie’s announcement comes on the heels of two major pieces of property development-related news. Since my first days as an eager young freshman reporter at The Daily Nexus, I’ve been intimately aware of the twisted web of planning, property, and politics that characterizes the way Santa Barbara and I.V. are run. In fact, my first experience interviewing the man himself was after a Project Area Committee and General Plan Advisory Committee – that’s PAC/GPAC to all the readers not well-versed in the intricacies of Santa Barbara’s various convoluted committee acronyms – meeting.
After almost four years in college, I don’t remember much about that blurry period right after the start of my freshman year. But, I do have some vague memories of that first PAC/GPAC meeting. I remember Dan Haier (the paper’s then Editor In Chief) coming with me to show me how to take notes at a county meeting. I remember there being cookies. And I remember Brooksie answering every question I asked with his characteristically unsettling combination of vagueness and aplomb. Of course, they discussed the Master Plan at the meeting as well, and I remember it receiving the kind of impassioned and polarized support and opposition from everyone in the room that I would eventually come to expect from whomever I was speaking to, whenever I brought it up.
In my time covering I.V. and the county, first as a reporter, then as a staff writer, and finally as the County Editor at The Nexus, I came to realize that nary a single meeting went by in our little borough without some mention of the Master Plan. Even the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District would manage to work the plan into almost every on-the-record discussion its board members had, whether they were talking about what length to cut the parks’ grass, or when they thought I.V. might finally get the skate park and soccer fields it had long ago been promised. Through it all, the plan loomed like a specter over everything. Nothing significant could get done without its passage, and nobody could figure out how to craft a version that might actually pass. Everyone from the Surfrider Foundation to the Isla Vista Tenants Union had an opinion, many of them valid, and all of them so firmly held that nobody was willing to compromise.
In my opinion, the Master Plan is not inherently bad, wrong, or even misguided. It is merely a proposal as to the best way to manage Isla Vista’s long-term development – a good idea if I’ve ever heard one. I have no doubt that the downtown beautification will make I.V. a much more pleasant place to live, and I have no compunctions about saying that we I.V. residents need something like the Master Plan to ensure that local politicians start paying attention to fixing the area’s ingrained problems, rather than just bitching about our behavior. Landlords must be held accountable for the integrity of their properties and their policies, the county must start using our tax dollars to better maintain public facilities in the area, and promises like the aforementioned skate park and soccer fields must be fulfilled. These things are important to I.V., and the Master Plan is the first step in making sure they happen. Unfortunately, the Master Plan is the first step in making sure a lot of other things happen as well.
According to the Indy‘s article on the Board’s plans to put low-income housing in the newly rezoned areas of I.V., the Board is not actually required to build homes, but rather, it must create incentives to entice developers to do so themselves. Without delving too deeply into the controversial Conquest evictions, all I can say is that past experience has taught us Isla Vistans to be wary of developers’ policies and prerogatives. Anyone who has rented a home in I.V. knows that our landlords, property-owners, and developers don’t care about us. They care about profits. And whether that means evicting families, hiking up rent for no reason, refusing to fix things they are legally responsible for, or potentially building a bunch of sub par low-income housing to get in good with local politicos and get a convenient tax break in the process, I.V. residents always end up on the losing end of their decisions. Sure, Conquest built some gorgeous housing with a great pool and state-of-the-art everything. And sure, many students are enjoying the life of luxury the company promised them.
But there is no reason they couldn’t have handled the evictions better, provided more options and incentives for people to move, and made the whole process amicable and amenable for everyone involved. It’s called good business practices, and when politicians like Brooksie choose a policy of deliberate ambiguity rather than direct accountability, developers have no incentive to make life easier for anyone but themselves. It’s a vicious cycle, and as the USC suit of Conquest proves, it will continue until someone stands up to them. My worry is that with all the talk of using the Master Plan to create much-needed affordable housing in the area, none of our politicians have brought good business practices into the conversation. Silence speaks volumes, and I guess that since Brooksie is retiring, he has no reason to start pretending he cares about I.V. residents now.
What worries me is the age-old adage that you can’t get something for nothing. Just how much of its character and characteristic independence will I.V. have to sacrifice in order to see the benefits promised by the Master Plan? It seems to me that merely plopping a whole bunch of low-income housing units down on some vacant property in I.V. does not reflect the kind of attitude we Isla Vistans would like to see in our supervisors. And neither does the idea that I.V.’s downtown should like something straight out of McMansion-land – as photos of the plans illustrate. We are not just a convenient place to put the low-income housing nobody else wants in their backyard. Nor are we a place begging to look just like downtown Santa Barbara. I.V. is a unique area with a unique character and some of the only remaining unique (read: not commercially-owned) businesses in the S.B. area.
We are not Westwood, nor do I think many of us want to be. Sure, we have made some concessions to the corporate America that is currently pricing out all the good independently-owned business on State Street. And yes, sometimes having a Subway on campus is just plain convenient. But, by and large, that’s not our scene.
We are the students who would rather buy our sandwiches from some guy at the back of the I.V. Deli Mart, the students who get good beer at a Co-Op and groceries at a glorified liquor store, the students whose coffee comes from I.V. Drip and Java Jones and not Starbucks, the students who go to class in bathing suits and go out in designer dresses and Rainbow sandals. We are the students for whom Halloween is a month-long celebration and body paint is entirely acceptable attire. We are a party school and a stronghold for Nobel Laureates. We are masters at the art of studying buzzed, and the home of the best soccer team in the nation. We work hard, we party hard, and we do not need any more chains in Isla Vista, thank you very much.
Some beautification would be nice, but let’s not get carried away here. Sidewalks, street lights, street signs, traffic control, and public transportation are the priorities. As is making sure the people that own the property on which we live are accountable to something more than just the proverbial profit motive. Here’s hoping that whoever replaces Brooksie knows enough to save the fountains and fancy brick walkways for State Street and makes sure that developers and property-owners are required to be just as conscious of the collective good as they are of the collection of rent. Oh, and don’t forget to protect our beach access.