This week — for the second time in the last two years — the world did not come to an end as predicted. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider expressed relief at this fact while also exhorting last-minute holiday shoppers to get downtown and spend their money. “As the World (Still) Turns, now is everyone’s chance to finish their holiday shopping,” the mayor wrote. “No more excuses!”
Schneider was referring to much publicized predictions that the world might cease to exist effective December 21. Those predictions were based on the fact that the last date to be included in the “Long Count” calendar created by the ancient Mayas was December 20. The Mayas themselves never predicted that the world would expire when their calendar did, but that did not prevent countless others from issuing such boldly dire warnings.
Of all mayors in Santa Barbara history, Schneider has been perhaps the most apocalyptically challenged. The end of the world had also been predicted last year — on May 21 — by Oakland-based evangelical minister Harold Camping. Like this Friday’s much-anticipated cataclysm, Camping’s end-of-days scenario failed to materialize as promised.
In the meantime, however, Schneider — as well as all of City Hall — finds herself much embroiled with the California Department of Finance over the fate of 15 downtown parking garages, built over decades with city Redevelopment Agency funding and constructed at the direction of the successive city councils acting in their capacity as Redevelopment Agency boards of directors. When California ordered the dissolution of all Redevelopment Agencies throughout the state late last year — in response to chronic budget woes — it left unresolved what would become of the assets of these agencies, worth billions of dollars. But when the City of Santa Barbara sought to absorb the parking lots its Redevelopment Agency bankrolled, the Department of Finance has twice taken steps to block this from happening. To date, that dispute remains unresolved.
Earlier this week, Schneider lead a delegation of City Hall heavyweights to meet with Department of Finance officials. The hour-long meeting was occasion for a frank exchange of views, but no decision came from it. In the meantime, ownership of the city lots — with hundreds of parking spaces offering 75 minutes of free parking — remains very much a $64-million question mark. Schneider alluded to that when commenting on the cosmic bullet the planet dodged this Friday. “Since it’s too late to shop online, better use those handy 75-minute free parking lots while we still have them,” the mayor wrote, adding somewhat tongue-in-cheekily: “Shop ’til you drop on State Street.”
Schneider decamped for Sacramento at 4 a.m. this Wednesday morning, accompanied by City Administrator Jim Armstrong, City Attorney Steve Wiley, and Community Development Director Paul Casey, to meet with Finance Department officials. Backing them up at the meeting was Assemblymember Das Williams, his chief of staff, and a representative for State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. As Schneider put it afterward, “We showed we were serious.” What the Santa Barbara delegation saw in response remains murky. “They did their best to be as non-committal as possible,” Schneider remarked. “They did say they would re-look at their policy based on the information we provided.”
A month ago, officials with the Department of Finance dropped a serious letter bomb on City Hall, insisting that the parking lots — and two other properties — did not constitute in their mind “a legitimate government function.” Because of that, they opined, City Hall would not be allowed to take possession of the lots and the former assets of the Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency would eventually have to be auctioned off. (The other major asset is property by the railroad depot — acquired with state transportation bonds — that’s been set aside for a new children’s museum. Plans for the proposed museum have been all but approved and funding has reportedly been secured for construction. Representatives for the museum were also on-hand for the meeting in Sacramento.) The only way these lots could qualify as “legitimate government functions,” wrote the Department of Finance in that missive, was if they were exclusively occupied by City Hall employees.
Community development czar Paul Casey echoed many of Schneider’s reaction to the meeting. “They were very non-committal,” he stated. “We really didn’t get a good read if they were impressed with our arguments or not.”
This was not the first collision between City Hall and the Department of Finance over the fate of the lots and the museum. This past summer, the Finance Department got language included in a bill that would have precluded any municipal government from taking possession of any former Redevelopment Agency assets unless it passed the “legitimate government function” test. But that bill specifically barred city parking lots from consideration. When city officials found out about the legislative attack, they sounded a battle cry. Assemblymember Williams — a former city councilmember who had consistently supported efforts to gut Redevelopment Agencies on the grounds that by so doing the state could spare public education from further cuts — was enlisted in the fray. Despite Williams’s criticism of Redevelopment Agencies in general — that they siphoned funds that could otherwise go to schools in order to subsidize private commercial development — he argued that Santa Barbara’s agency had been well-run, had spent millions over the years on affordable housing, and had, in fact, helped revitalize what would otherwise be a saggy and soggy downtown business district.
With help from Williams, the bill disappeared. At that point, all parties thought the matter had been put to rest. When the Department of Finance notified City Hall last month that it would not approve the transfer of agency assets — citing administrative procedures — city officials and Williams were very upset. At Wednesday’s meeting with Finance Department officials, Williams made it clear he thought the matter had been resolved this summer and was not happy the issue had taken on a new lease on life.
To many, the dispute may seem hopelessly wonky, esoteric, and abstract — involving governmental agencies not well-known and even less understood — but the ramifications of the outcome, while still speculative, could be quite dramatic and immediate. In a worst-case scenario, City Hall would have to sell its parking lots and structures, presumably to private developers. At risk would be the free 75 minutes of parking now offered at all municipal lots and the relatively low rates charged thereafter. What would become of the downtown Farmers Market, which takes place every Saturday at the city’s Cota Street lot? Likewise unknown, what would happen to the program allowing homeless people to park their RVs in city lots at night?
In many cities, downtown parking has been dominated by private interests. In Los Angeles, for example, that’s how developer and political power broker Rick Caruso — now so infamously embroiled with Montecito’s Miramar Hotel — made his initial fortune. But in Santa Barbara, government-sponsored parking has been integral to efforts to revitalize the city’s urban core. To that end, City Hall has spent millions not only building and maintaining lots and parking structures but also subsidizing their rates. Since the 1970s, Santa Barbara elected officials and City Hall functionaries have worried endlessly about the so-called “Goleta Threat,” a much-fretted about retail center that would suck the traffic, the shoppers, and the money away from downtown Santa Barbara. To that end, Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency cleared the ground of small property owners to make room for the Paseo Nuevo shopping center. But without parking, Paseo Nuevo would be stillborn, so City Hall — through its Redevelopment Agency — sold the bonds to build two new parking garages. Likewise, when City Hall designated the downtown area just north of Carrillo Street an arts zone, the Redevelopment Agency put millions into the new Granada Theater. But it sunk infinitely more into building the new Granada garage.
Such redevelopment schemes have no shortage of critics. Property-rights advocates — typically on the right — object at the powers of eminent domain wielded by such agencies. Alternative-transit advocates worry that by subsidized parking, local governments are perpetuating the hegemony of the automobile and car-centric planning. In response to such concerns, Santa Barbara’s Redevelopment Agency had underwritten the costs for the downtown shuttle and included a bicycle storage area in the Granada garage for bipedal commuters and shoppers.
To date, Santa Barbara is the first California city to confront this question in the wake of its Redevelopment Agency’s dissolution. Given that 420 agencies throughout the state were abruptly shut down — as part of a desperate quest to save the cash-strapped state an estimated $1.7 billion — the resolution of this showdown could set an important precedent. How that fact colors the deliberations is a matter of speculation. So, too, is the extent to which any of Santa Barbara’s long and idiosyncratic history with redevelopment and parking might affect the thinking of Finance Department officials with broader statewide considerations on their minds. But the stakes are sufficiently high that the City of Santa Barbara can’t afford to back down. As Casey commented before the meeting, “I don’t want to be premature, but we will not take no for an answer.”
But for time being, as Mayor Schneider noted, City Hall still controls its parking lot destiny. Holiday shoppers are still guaranteed their 75 minutes of free parking. And for the second time in the past two years, the world has not come to a screeching halt.