Such is the contradictory weirdness by which local governments finance themselves that the Santa Barbara City Council placed itself squarely on the hook for $2 million to give a major makeover to the plaza space outside the downtown library even as the basic functions taking place inside the library are on the chopping block. Councilmembers acknowledged the cognitive dissonance the plans generated, as evidenced by angry e-mails sent by constituents urging them to use the money to maintain core library services instead. The problem, the council insisted, is that the funds come from two separate pots of money, and by law, they cannot be co-mingled. Library staffing is paid for from the city’s general fund — now limping along with a $3 million shortfall — while the brand new plaza would be funded by the Redevelopment Agency, which was created back in the 1970s to “fight blight” and eventually helped build such things as the Paseo Nuevo mall.
Fueling the council’s action is a use-it-or-lose it urgency stemming from Governor Jerry Brown’s declaration of all out war on redevelopment agencies throughout California. Facing record-setting budget deficits, Brown hopes to save the state about $1.7 billion in revenues that are currently short-stopped by the hundreds of redevelopment agencies now in operation. By so doing, Brown contends he can spare school districts the budget ax he’s wielding in Sacramento. In turn, redevelopment agencies have scrambled to encumber their funding capacity with as many legal obligations as possible to fend off Brown’s assault. But even if Brown fails, Santa Barbara’s redevelopment agency, by law, expires four years from now and must cease operations.
Clearly propelling the proposal to revamp the library grounds — an institutional hodge-podge of lawn, walled off areas, trees, and a fountain area dating back to the 70s — is a concern, expressed by some members of the public, that the area is not safe. The library has long provided a haven for Santa Barbara’s homeless, and the grounds have served as a resting place for some, a drinking space for others, and a gathering spot for many. “I have people who complain they were harassed,” said Library director Irene Macias. Jeremy Tessmer, a nine-year employee with the Sullivan Goss gallery across the street from the library, put it more dramatically, charging that rapists, pedophiles, and drug abusers have availed themselves to the cover offered by the library landscape. “This is where women can be raped and people can do drugs,” he declared. Library board member Eric Friedman dismissed as “ludicrous” the notion that the plan was targeting the homeless, but acknowledged public safety concerns loomed large.
Soon to be on the drawing boards will be plans drawn up by Campbell & Campbell, a Santa Barbara firm specializing in designing outdoor spaces. The husband and wife team are now working on new plans for De La Guerra Plaza, but are better known for their landscape designs for Los Angeles’s new cathedral and its downtown public library. The firm was selected out of 12 applicants. It’s likely their plans will flatten out the existing terrain surrounding the library; programmable spaces for temporary outdoor art shows and an outdoor sculpture garden will be part of the picture, as will wedding areas. What happens to the existing fountain — donated by Hugh Peterson, the deceased owner of the adjoining La Arcada plaza — remains uncertain. (Peterson, it turns out, had hoped to donate a $10 million replica of The Thinker statue — as well as an original Calder mobile — but could never come to terms with City Hall.)
Beyond the issue of public safety, councilmembers — Grant House especially — stressed how the new outdoor design would help connect the library with the art museum, the refurbished Granada Theatre, and the Jardin de las Granadas public garden in front of the public housing development on Anapamu Street across from the library.
In the meantime, councilmember Bendy White and Mayor Helene Schneider pressed redevelopment specialist Brian Bosse whether agency funds could be used to complete a long-stalled effort to convert the basement of the library into a refurbished kids’ section. Because of budget cuts and a private fundraising campaign knee-capped by the recession, the basement has sat empty and useless for two years with no end in sight. Schneider nudged Bosse to further explore whether that changeover would fall within the definitional confines of “infrastructure” needed for Redevelopment Agency funds to be spent. Councilmember White expressed muted exasperation that the library remains closed on Mondays. Were it not for contract language requiring that library employees be given their two days off consecutively, he said, the library could remain open Mondays without incurring the crippling overtime costs. “Let’s get our kids reading,” he said.
When it came time to vote, only councilmember Michael Self voted against the plan, suggesting that perhaps the tax money would be better spent at the state level for educational programs. Although Councilmember Randy Rowse said he shared many of Self’s misgivings, he added, “It’s not that I don’t trust Governor Brown with our money, but sending it back to Sacramento might not be the highest and best use of our funds.”