TAKE A GANDER AT THAT GOOSE: Sometimes, you have to stretch to find dots to connect. But other times they stab you with a butcher knife in both eyes. Such was the case at this Tuesday evening’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting, which otherwise could easily have been mistaken for a circle jerk except that all the councilmembers were sitting in a straight line. Three arduous hours were spent resurrecting an ancient debate — so dead the bones had turned to powder — about the La Entrada development slated for the bottom of State Street. What saved the evening from utter sterility were efforts by anti–gang injunction activists to engage the council in a public debate over an issue it has spent the past two years ducking.
On the table was a hope and a prayer brought by councilmembers Dale Francisco and Randy Rowse to reexamine whether it makes sense to expand the sidewalks on the lower two blocks of State Street where the new 114-room La Entrada hotel project will soon sprout up. By widening the sidewalks to make the area ever more enthralling to the teeming masses, Francisco and Rowse worry cars will get squeezed as State Street is narrowed from four lanes to two. It’s an old argument on which people can reasonably disagree, though I’m right and they’re wrong. Francisco — the Fred Astaire of the political right for his clever footwork — seized upon recent project-design changes proposed by the project’s third developer, Michael Rosenfeld from L.A., to reopen this can of worms. If Rosenfeld can alter certain aspects of the project, first approved by City Hall 12 years ago, Francisco pointedly wondered, then why couldn’t he reconsider the road narrowing, too? The original traffic studies on which the project approval was based, Francisco argued, were bunk then and have only gotten bunkier since. And with all the wine bars bursting out in the adjacent Funk Zone — not to mention the threat of an errant tsunami — Francisco argued it makes no sense to narrow State Street. Can’t we just study it some more, he asked.
The short and long answer is no. And only superficially is the question remotely sensible. Here’s why: Ever since 1998, when La Entrada was first proposed, City Hall insisted — and the developer agreed — that the sidewalks should be expanded and the street narrowed. The idea was to maximize the public space around what would be the biggest private redevelopment project to hit city limits. This was a key strategy to ensure that a private developer didn’t effectively commandeer a major public space for the benefit of well-heeled out-of-town visitors. It’s the same reason City Hall also insisted the project include an expansive and inviting public plaza. The wider sidewalks have been integral — not incidental — to the design of the project from its inception. It was one of the defining elements during environmental review, and it was one of the key reasons the project was ultimately approved both by City Hall and the Coastal Commission. To remove this from the project now would constitute a capital case of bait-and-switch. It would also open City Hall up to a host of lawsuits and a revocation of Coastal Commission approval. With lower State Street sitting in a zombified state of suspended animation — our very own Miramar — does anyone really want more delay? But Tuesday night, we rehashed the old debate for so long I had carbuncles sprouting off my backside. Francisco and Rowse justified this exhausting expenditure of time and spit, arguing it allowed the issue to be better vetted. It gave the public, they said, a clearer understanding of what’s happening. I don’t know how much clearer it could have already been. Since 1998, there have been more than 40 public hearings, lawsuits, appeals, and even an attempted initiative about La Entrada — almost all focused on the sidewalk-widening, road-narrowing aspects. If any animal were beaten to death as badly as this, PETA would have dispatched shock troops. Yes, it’s true that the underlying traffic study was pretty dubious. But that’s ancient history. But even if it weren’t, it would show that on busy summer days, there’s going to be serious congestion at State and Cabrillo streets no matter how many lanes you build — six or two. The punch line: If you can’t make cars happy no matter what, then make sure you handle the flow of pedestrians. They are, after all, what causes the congestion down there.
But that’s not what bugs me. What irked me was how Francisco and Rowse were so willing to waste the council’s limited time to debate something written in stone years ago, yet the council has somehow been too busy to conduct a single public hearing on the gang injunction. Whether you support the injunction or not, it qualifies as a bona fide major policy issue. There should be a council discussion where the pros and cons are hashed out. The council and the police chief should make their case to the people; the people should talk back. Maybe some facts and figures could be presented, and a decision should be made. Yet here we are — two years after the injunction was first proposed — and it has yet to make it onto a single council agenda. Given that the injunction covers pretty much the entire East and West sides of town, I would think it could be of considerable interest to a whole lot of people. Maybe even more than La Entrada.
I get it. The gang injunction was the function of political posturing needed at the time to reassure people getting scared and jumpy that something was being done. Tuesday night’s discussion was posturing, as well, priming the pump by Francisco and Rowse to tap into that simmering reservoir of discontent about such things as traffic calming, bulb-outs, and social engineering. But if Francisco and Rowse want to abuse the council process to kick what’s obviously a dead dog, maybe the council as a whole should consider throwing a live one into the mix. To do less is to defame circle jerks. And that would be most unfair.