When I am told that we need to look at the big picture, I get ready to duck. Invariably the real meaning of such a broadminded and democratic suggestion is that someone is seeking their own interest and working against mine. What the suggestion implies, as well, is that if I do not go along with their ideas, I am being crabby and small-minded. After all, the general good is involved. Though when I think a little longer, I realize it is merely good for another, and there is nothing general about it.
I had a conversation some days ago with City Councilmember Cathy Murillo that went in these circles. This was following the overflow attendance of the February 23 City Council meeting in which the Bicycle Master Plan was discussed. The most contentious aspect of the plan is the proposed elimination of something over 80 parking spaces on Micheltorena Street from the freeway bridge to State Street to create a kind of bicycle thoroughfare. The City Council later approved most of the plan except for the Micheltorena bike path. But this plan has not gone away and will continue to have advocates.
Residents and business owners along Micheltorena Street have been quick to organize and formed the largest group at the meeting. They painted a horrifying picture of the disastrous impact this would have on the people who live and work along that street. Their case was so compelling and convincing; it’s hard to imagine anyone not being persuaded by the justice of their cause.
One of the glaring flaws in this proposal, the conspicuous missing piece in all of this, is a study, or some speculation, from city planners on the consequences for neighborhood parking. I spoke to this issue and explained that the neighborhood is always near full capacity. Tolerances are so small that street work that eliminates parking for half a block sends a kind of saturation shock through the surrounding blocks. If the parking elimination was a small thing, just a matter of walking a little farther some of the time, no one would care. But residents in this area spend so much of their time already struggling with parking, it is inconceivable that the city could approve a plan that would make it worse. Quite literally impossible.
Parking vacancy rates, I think, are somewhat greater above Micheltorena Street than below. That area will get hit first and maybe hardest. Still, the entire area, at least from Anapamu Street to Valerio Street will be insupportably affected. There would probably be a demand for more permit-parking-only blocks for residents. If this happens, downtown workers, shoppers, visitors, etc., might be significantly discouraged from parking downtown at all. The good or bad of this is highly debatable. And the permit sticker blocks won’t help anyone at night, when it will be parking hell.
The Micheltorena Street bikeway was supported by a number of clean-living, right-thinking people who are against obesity. That was emphasized. They also let us know that street parking is not guaranteed by the Constitution and chanted the slogan “Streets are for driving, not for parking.” The class bias of all this was not just glaring; it was shocking. These off-street-parking aristocrats let everyone know that street parking is for vagrants and the Great Unwashed.
The measure was also supported, unfortunately, by speakers from the Sierra Club and the Community Environmental Council. This is an issue in which they might have wisely remained neutral. Environmental groups, locally and nationally, always struggle with the difficulty of not appearing to advance ideas that make the lives of working people or the poor more difficult. Eliminating parking on Micheltorena Street does exactly that. The Downtown Westside is a very working-class neighborhood and parking reduction puts greater stress on the lives of people in the neighborhood.
The City Council is wedded to an abstraction and can’t see beyond it. A bike plan is all virtue and goodness and nothing else matters. They are champions of something that is good in theory — until the practical application and its consequences are considered. Then it becomes a terrible idea: a threat to livelihoods and the worsening of an already bad situation.
What’s the big picture? The City Council should be trying to protect and enhance the lives of working people in this community. Not trying to make things worse. That is the biggest picture.
If the Downtown Westside takes a hit on this (if the plan doesn’t founder in the meantime), then look out, they’ll hit back. The city is in the process of phasing-in district representation on the City Council. The critics of the plan said this might balkanize Santa Barbara, creating a collection of hostile areas within the city. The districting process isn’t even complete, and the worst fear is already coming true. The Downtown Westside is District 6, and it does not yet have a council member. The perception, quite understandably, is that the Micheltorena Street plan is being forced on them from the outside and over their protests. And it is a plan that advances the interests of the Westside, District 3, not caring about the consequences for the people across the freeway.
There will be an election for the Downtown Westside seat next year, and the angriest candidate will win. District 6 will send an individual to the City Council waving a club — and look out when they show up! There will be purpose vengeance in their program. Stop implementation of the Micheltorena Street plan, wipe out street sweeping, attack their enemies … and what else?
The paradoxical good aspect to all this is that the Downtown Westside, District 6, has been given the opportunity to get to know itself. The Micheltorena Street organization should make an effort to expand its base of support, create forums, facilitate conversation within the neighborhood, so that the whole area can discuss those issues that are most important. And plan for the future.