Sharon Byrne (left) and Cathy Murillo
Paul Wellman (file)

A plan by the Milpas Community Association to create an Eastside Business Improvement District along the Milpas Street corridor generated serious blowback by some activists, business owners, and at least one city councilmember.

At a Wednesday night meeting of the city’s Neighborhood Advisory Council, several activists associated with the push for district elections and against the gang injunction charged the creation of the new Eastside Business Improvement District (EBID) would promote the gentrification of Milpas Street and raise rents. (While the issues are separate, the Milpas Community Association [MCA] had been broadly supportive of the injunction and booted from its board a longtime member who joined the lawsuit against City Hall to secure district elections.) A couple business owners stated they’d been pressured to support the EBID. Making the showdown odd was the fact that there was no presentation by EBID supporters on the agenda. Instead, the meeting only called for an “update” on the plan. As such, Wednesday evening qualified as a slashing display of forks and knives without any food.

The MCA argues the district is necessary because the proceeds of district assessment — which they estimated at $1 a day for most businesses — would be used for street cleaning, graffiti removal, parades, promotions, and special events. Currently, the MCA — led by Sharon Byrne — performs all these functions, but on a voluntary payment plan that’s been heavily underwritten by a small handful of businesses. EBID supporters argue this places an unfair burden on the few, and that the creation of a new district would create a stable funding base, thus obviating their constant need to fund raise on a project-by-project basis.

Santa Barbara City Councilmember Cathy Murillo has opposed the business district almost from its inception, arguing that the new assessment would be passed on to business owners in the form of higher rents, that bigger hotels would have a disproportionate sway over EBID policies, and that the MCA has failed to do any meaningful outreach to the affected businesses. It’s worth noting that Murillo and Byrne have crossed swords several times in the past. The two ran against each other for City Council four years ago, and Murillo was almost as outspoken in her defense of the Casa Esperanza homeless shelter as Byrne and MCA had been critical of its operation. When the EBID plan was first unveiled at a City Council meeting two months ago, Murillo pounded the pavement interviewing business owners. She contended few had been aware that such a plan was even in the works. And she has since seized on this issue and mobilized opposition.

For her part, Byrne denied that any intimidation or harassment has taken place and said that the improvement district would create a more attractive place for shoppers to visit, thus generating more foot traffic for local businesses. Byrne said the council presentation had been premature and was done only at the direction of City Hall officials. The final details have only now congealed. In fact, she had not sought out a place on the Neighborhood Advisory Committee’s Wednesday night agenda but came at the invitation of City Hall staff. Neither she nor anyone from the MCA came prepared to give a presentation.

The tone and tenor of the meeting was adversarial and confrontational, suggesting a bumpy road ahead when Byrne and the MCA finally do unroll their plans to the broader Milpas community. MCA board member Jarrett Gorin demanded that Advisory Council member Sebastian Aldana recuse himself because of a conflict of interest. Aldana had served on the MCA board since its inception until a few months ago, when he was kicked off for being a plaintiff against the city over the current election system. Aldana is one of several plaintiffs contending the current at-large system of elections yields racially polarized results and must be replaced by a district system. How bad the blood is between Aldana and the MCA is a matter of speculation, but Mark Alvarado, the city staff liaison to the Neighborhood Advisory Council said City Attorney Ariel Calonne had notified him that under the law, no conflict of interest exists. Aldana did not respond to Gorin’s charges, nor did he comment on the proposed EBID.

What happens next with the district has yet to be seen. The Neighborhood Advisory Committee has scheduled dueling presentations for its monthly meeting in February, allowing both sides to lay out the pros and cons of the proposal at length and in detail.


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