Granada Theatre parking garage
Paul Wellman

It wasn’t exactly the sort of end-zone sack dance witnessed weekly by NFL fans, but it was about as close as the more staid Santa Barbara City Council is willing to go. “This is a very good thing, very good news,” exclaimed a much-relieved Mayor Helene Schneider. “It was a big, ugly thing hanging over our heads.”

The good news being celebrated is that City Hall will be able to retain ownership and control of 12 downtown parking lots and garages; the “big, ugly thing” was that, until last week, the California Department of Finance had prevented City Hall from doing just that. For the past two decades, those parking lots had been operated under the auspices of the Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency. When the cash-strapped State Legislature abolished all redevelopment agencies throughout the state last year — on the grounds that it would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars — City Hall sought to take possession of those lots, several of which were built on city-owned land and most financed with city-sponsored municipal bonds.

For the past six months, however, the Department of Finance has blocked City Hall from doing so, arguing that the parking lots did not constitute a bona fide “government purpose.” Only if the lots were used exclusively by City Hall employees, finance officials argued, could the lots fall within the definition of “government purpose.” For City Hall, this constituted a dire threat; the management of downtown lots — and the cheap availability of parking — has been integral to the vitality of the central business district. To lose that control was regarded as nothing less than catastrophic. When Schneider went to Christmas parties throughout the month of December, she recounted, no one asked her what she wanted for Christmas; everybody, she said, asked about the future control of the downtown parking lots.

Last month, Mayor Helene Schneider went to Sacramento with City Administrator Jim Armstrong, Community Development Director Paul Casey, and City Attorney Steve Wiley to plead City Hall’s case. Joining them for a sit-down with finance officials were Assemblymember Das Williams and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. Although state officials were noncommittal in the extreme during that encounter, the Santa Barbara contingent’s arguments proved sufficient to change their minds. Given that Santa Barbara downtown property owners had been paying parking assessment fees into a special parking district created 42 years ago, Finance Department consultant Steve Szalay opined that “these properties should be maintained as governmental purpose and therefore eligible for immediate transfer.”

But Szalay took exception to some of the doomsday scenarios outlined by City Hall officials in recent months. In the worst case, Casey had suggested City Hall would have to sell its lots to private developers who would then abolish the 75 minutes of free parking now enjoyed by downtown shoppers, visitors, and workers. Szalay rejected the prediction that the 12 lots would have to be sold to private concerns, calling it “a completely inaccurate assumption.” Last-minute sniping exceptions notwithstanding, Schneider stated, ”I think we obviously made a difference.” Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss was happy to agree, stating, “This, without a doubt, is a major feather in your cap, Madame Mayor,” adding, “I had no doubt you would win this.”

While the details of the showdown between City Hall and the Department of Finance was bureaucratically esoteric, the outcome was anything but. According to Councilmember Grant House, “For the public this is really, really, really important.” Less clear is the fate of the proposed Children’s Museum, slated for construction on land formerly owned by the Redevelopment Agency located adjacent to the railroad depot. Although Szalay maintains that property — about 11 parcels — and the museum do not constitute a “government function,” he did suggest a series of bureaucratic steps City Hall could take to eventually assume ownership.

A small chunk of land occupying less than an acre where Bath Street collides with Mission Creek can probably pass muster with the Department of Finance once the small park — replete with an exceedingly limited playground — is developed at the site. However, other properties — like the 2.4 acres purchased by the Redevelopment Agency on Calle César Chávez — will have to be sold.


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