Donning sun hats and polo shirts stitched with the seal of the City of Santa Barbara, councilmembers boarded a borrowed MTD bus earlier this week and toured various city parks and neighborhoods, hearing from staff what’s been done to improve certain areas and learning which projects still need work.
Browning Allen with the Public Works Department presented a slide show before everyone hit the streets and explained that the Improvement Program’s main goals are to revamp areas with sub-par infrastructure and services, encourage residents and community groups to get involved, and ratchet up building and zone enforcement.
To get these jobs done, explained Allen, an interdepartmental task force was formed that’s composed of people from a number of city offices, including police, fire, parks and recreation, community development, and others. Staff, he went on, is funneling $359,000 in federal funds — administered through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program — to pay for projects such as renovations to the Franklin Neighborhood Center, the installation of access ramps along Aliso Street, the reworking of Ortega Park, the cleanup of the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way adjacent to the 101 and Las Positas, and the installation of fences at Cabrillo Ballfield.
Beyond those specific endeavors, the CDBG funds are also helping to pay for general facelifts within what Browning termed “priority neighborhoods,” the areas that need the most governmental and fiscal attention. Designated by census tracts and also used for General Plan purposes, these neighborhoods are: the Westside, West Downtown, Lower West, the Eastside, Lower East, and East Beach.
The council heard from Allen about how the task force is cracking down on enforcement cases, learning that it’s found people living in “extreme substandard conditions.” While a house may look okay from the street, Allen said, walking further into the property oftentimes reveals a host of code violations that need to be addressed.
Enforcement officers are commonly tipped off to substandard properties by neighbors concerned about aesthetics and safety. In two extreme cases — witnessed firsthand by the council during drive-bys later on — officers reported such dilapidated and unkempt properties that the residents were forced to leave. With electrical, fire, zoning, and a host of other violations, the places were deemed too dangerous for human habitation. In one instance, an official nearly broke his leg when he stepped through a front home’s door and landed in a hole gaping in the floorboards. The floor itself, he said, was titled to a shocking degree. In that same case, Edison was immediately called in to shut off power due to the precarious state of the residence’s wiring.
Allen said his office often fields criticism from citizens who say they don’t see any movement on the city’s end after they log a complaint; he explained to the council that because of due process considerations, it can take months or years before a property is brought back up to snuff.
A spokesperson with the Adopt-A-Block program talked about the difference it makes when businesses and residents sign up with the program, explaining that it promotes teamwork between citizens and city staff to get rid of graffiti and litter. Working in tandem with Adopt-A-Block is the Neighborhood Watch program, said a police representative. Police, he said, coordinate with a block captain — who is unofficially in charge of a watch area — to keep tabs on crime and suspicious activity. “When people take ownership of their neighborhood,” he explained, “they become the eyes and ears.”
Councilmember Grant House asked how these programs affect crime rates in those areas. Statistics, the officer claimed, show that neighborhoods that adopt watch programs — and especially areas that coordinate with the Adopt-A-Block program — see significantly less crime in addition to increased property values. Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss spoke up at this point, asking what the best way is to get rid items and furniture consistently turning up on sidewalks. He was told that for stuff to be hauled away, someone needs to call it in. The number for the city streets and parks dispatch line, he was informed, is (805) 564-5413.
The first stop on the bus tour was Ortega Park. Identified by Neighborhood Outreach Services as a problem area, the park has seen its fair share of projects since 2000 designed to bring it out of a state of disrepair. After sweeping up needles and beer cans and shooing away the prostitutes that reportedly used it at night, city staff members said they consider the public space a success story.
The staff boasted about murals that deter graffiti, new play structures, and the recently revamped Welcome House (essentially a big room with a kitchen that’s used for birthday parties, meetings, and other gatherings), saying the park is in a much better place than it was not long ago. A number of safety concerns have also been addressed, they said, by adding lighting, removing a wall that hindered passing patrol officer’s view from the streets, and raising the bathroom privacy partitions to more easily see if anyone is inside. The renovation of the bathrooms inside and outside, said staff, is costing $224,440.
There are still a few goals to be met, explained Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Rapp, as staff wants to eventually redo the heavily used basketball courts and make the picnic tables more family friendly. Currently, concurred Councilmember Bendy White, the tables are used by an unsavory crowd for gambling and hanging out. “We want to encourage more of the right kind of activity,” Rapp said. The process of getting the park exactly where staff thinks it should be, she went on, “has been really gradual, but we’re almost there.”
Cruising along, councilmembers were briefed on the access ramps that are being installed along Aliso Street. The ramps — slopes built into sidewalk corners that allow disabled people to easily navigate into crosswalks — cost $50,000 to put in, said Browning. Councilmember Michael Self remarked on the fresh graffiti seen on some of the new ramps, shouting “graffiti team!” Staff told her they would look into it. Self said that she herself reports acts of vandalism on a regular basis.
Arriving at the Franklin Neighborhood Center, task force member Antonio Velasquez spoke about how $25,000 of block grant money will soon be used to convert an office space within the building to a drop-in teen center. He also touched on how, over the years, a number of renovation projects have taken place. The common space was recently turned into a conference room, and that project coincided with the remodel of the facility’s clinic.
The kitchen, too, Velasquez went on, was recently redone to make it functional for commercial use. The space can be rented for $130 by anyone, and that money goes directly to the city. Councilmembers nodded in silent approval as they inspected the new cooking center, and Velasquez said the hope is to re-implement a Senior Nutrition Health Program out of the center. It had been stopped years ago due to budget cuts.
Velasquez also thanked the Santa Barbara Arts Alliance as its members had helped paint the murals found on many of the Franklin Center’s outside walls. The fact that taggers typically avoid such walls, claimed Velasquez, saves the city thousands of dollars in cleanup costs yearly. Many of the alliance members, he said, were troubled youth at one point or another, and it’s a great thing to now see them contributing to the center.
After slowly driving by the active enforcement cases discussed during the pre-tour briefing, the bus then cruised by a small park with a play structure on the Eastside that is lined by a community garden. Nancy Rapp explained $72,000 in grants helped turn the area into the inviting space it is today, and that significant community input allowed staff to plan the park and garden in the specific ways people wanted. Councilmember Self remarked that there appeared to be an inordinate amount of “kiddy swings” with “leg holes,” and that there weren’t enough “big kid swings.” Staff told her they would look into it.
The councilmembers were then driven to the Cabrillo Ballfield and told that staff is working hard to “reclaim the area for ballplayers.” Lamenting that the property has been all but overrun by homeless people — the SBCC softball team is now too afraid to practice there, one person said — the field has garnered a reputation of being unclean and unsafe, said staff.
As groups lounging on the bleachers and grass slope mockingly waved to the bus, Rapp said staff at one point considered fencing off the entire field. The more practical solution at the moment, she explained, is fencing in the bathroom and bleacher area. That will cost $25,000. The fence’s gate will be locked during off hours, she said, and hopefully deter unwanted groups from congregating. A lot of improvements need to be done, Rapp went on, including an overhaul of the drainage system that, right now, leaves much of the field underwater during wet conditions. “There are many things can be done,” she said, “and need to be talked about in the long run.”
More money, she mentioned, would help those efforts. Councilmember House asked what can be done to increase public use. Rapp responded that significant visual changes are the best ways to get families and ballplayers on the field.
The last part of the tour brought the busload up toward Las Positas and back down Highway 101. Councilmembers were directed to look out the right-hand window to the railroad tracks and they were told how major cleanup efforts — including the eradication of numerous homeless camps — have left the Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way safer and void of trash.
Workers filled multiple trucks with junk, said Allen, during the last annual cleanup, and the next one is scheduled for May. Crews found many odd and dangerous pieces of debris, he said, including 300 rounds of live ammunition. Train fatalities along the stretch have also gone down significantly, said Allen, as homeless encampments are now much fewer and farther between.