Among a slew of other epithets, Isla Vista is often called a student ghetto. Residences are shabby and poorly kept, sidewalks abruptly start and end, many areas are uncomfortably dark after sunset, and the cracks and gouges in certain roads resemble the fractures in a shattered mirror.
The University of California Regents declined early in UCSB’s history to annex the community into the campus for student housing purposes, leaving it to grow and develop with virtually no guidance or helping hand. The parking nightmare intimately familiar to so many of today’s residents can be traced back to the original zoning ordinances that eschewed off-street parking for the blocks of dense housing that constitute most of the half-square mile.
Over the decades, various arms of the county and university have commissioned studies and surveys intended to address the myriad infrastructure deficiencies seemingly inherent to I.V., and while many have pinpointed causes and laid out solutions, the comprehensive maintenance and improvements the community so wants and needs have not kept pace.
I.V.’s urban planning work is guided and informed by the Isla Vista Master Plan, which was approved by the county in 2007. Among the plan’s goals are decreased car use, increased space for parking, and greater corridors for active modes of transportation.
In 1990, the county Board of Supervisors adopted the I.V. Redevelopment Plan and established the I.V. Redevelopment Agency, which could use local tax revenue to make appreciable improvements to areas like sidewalks, lighting, and drainage. The dissolution several years ago of all redevelopment agencies by the state restricted local infrastructure projects, and coming up with the money to continue the RDA’s work required extra negotiating among the supervisors and greater collaboration with community players.
I.V.’s infrastructure is looked after by a slew of entities: Southern California Edison owns and maintains street lighting, the Goleta Water District sees to the town’s water needs, MarBorg Industries attends to waste collection, the Metropolitan Transit District provides public transportation. With infrastructure money tight and a huge maintenance backlog across the county, funding sources are just as varied. Sidewalks and roadways receive money from general road funds used throughout the county, $200,000 a year of tax revenue from Measure A, and get attention when they climb high enough on a long priority list. The county additionally applies for Community Development Block Grants and has a financial partnership with UCSB, whose own Long Range Development Plan sets aside money for infrastructure improvements in the community.
The latest project to near completion has been improved street lighting. The arduous task of filling in the yawning gaps in the sidewalk grid continues in funding-dictated fits and starts. The next project on deck is the installation this summer of a larger storm drain along an alley that runs from Pasado to Del Playa between Camino Corto and Camino del Sur. Concurrently, the alleyway will be renovated into a proper pedestrian access way. According to Chris Sneddon with the Public Works Department, the county is also looking at potentially installing traffic signals next year in the Pardall–Embarcadero del Norte intersection, where streams of bikes can make crossing Pardall in a car a protracted and sketchy task.
The constant battle to maintain I.V.’s infrastructure could witness a new chapter if the town votes to establish a community services district (CSD). Depending on decisions being made by LAFCO, a CSD could, among other powers, maintain and rehabilitate infrastructure, acquire and maintain community facilities, and establish a parking district. Assuming the CSD generates the generous end of its revenue estimation, it will have, along with $200,000 a year from UCSB for the first seven years, $700,000 annually that could be put in part toward infrastructure.
“Isla Vista has the size and the density and the diversity and issues of a city of 20,000 people without being a city,” 3rd District supervisor Doreen Farr told me. “Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has to be both city and county government to Isla Vista, and get into a lot of areas and a lot of expense that we don’t need to in other parts of the county because they are incorporated. They have a whole city government to raise money and to manage it.” Even with a CSD, I.V. will still be dependent on the county for certain services and funding.
Despite the daunting challenges a local government will face, Farr expressed optimism. Other CSDs in the county, she said, offered their communities the opportunity to come together to address their respective issues and wield their collective voice in matters outside their local government’s purview.
“I think that the benefit of some of this we’ve actually already seen,” said Farr, “because we have had meetings with a great coming together of all parts of the community — students, longtime residents, the families — that I haven’t really seen happen that much, if at all, before now.”