Be Careful What You Wish For

Fixing Santa Barbara's Downtown Involves Cooperation, not Finger-Pointing

Santa Barbara's State Street, a part of El Pueblo Viejo, circa 1959

Tyler Hayden has written a terrific article on State Street’s condition, “The Fight for State Street” in the July 26 issue. He collected opinion and information from a wide swath of interested participants, and I learned a lot reading it. Nonetheless, I felt it overemphasized the importance of development and commercialization of El Pueblo Viejo. The piece was long on one-off stories about process woes and city nastiness, but short on examples of good results from initially outrageous proposals after city review. There were a lot of comments from owners, architects, and businesspeople, all of whom have a primary economic interest.

As discovered countless times before, nobody views the problem as their own; there was a lot of finger-pointing. A notable exception was the anonymous city employee who acknowledged, “The first step is to even admit we have a problem.” I didn’t read similar ownership from the other main players. Instead, they all had some excuse: It’s inadequate police presence. It’s the size and shape of the spaces. It’s the onerous permitting process. It’s the Funk Zone. It’s the rigid design standards. It’s not me, look over there!

The city, once again, played the role of whipping boy. We were told, oh, they’re all fine people; it’s the process. Every applicant for development has a quotable story about how much easier and cheaper it is to do business somewhere else. That may be so, but applicants continue to fill the agendas of design review boards with new projects. When their projects involve designated historic districts (like El Pueblo Viejo) or buildings older than 50 years, they must be reviewed by our Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC). Thank goodness!

Interested readers should spend some alternate Wednesday afternoon in the audience of an HLC meeting. Agendas and prior minutes of meetings are all available online. The first thing they’ll notice is the transparency. Design guidelines are all laid out for applicants to know in advance. There should be no surprises about acceptable styles, size, compatibility, parking, colors, or any of the myriad of issues raised by developers. The second striking thing about HLC meetings is the sheer audacity of some architects presenting unacceptable designs in the face of known requirements. It’s little wonder that Commission Chair Bill LeVoie gets exasperated at repeated maneuvers by overzealous developers. HLC is one of the bulwarks against Santa Barbara’s architecture resembling just another beachside town with a Spanish mission, like Oceanside, Ventura, or Santa Cruz.

Finally, one business supporter said it’s up to City Hall to lead the charge with relentless buy-in from the rest of the community. Be careful what you wish for. That community actually lives here and votes here, unlike absentee landlords and out-of-town developers. We don’t like the downtown deterioration, but we definitely will not turn over control to commercial interests.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.