I think it was Mao Zedong who never said, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking toes.” If so, prepare for some serious crunching.
I say this in light of the born-again fervor to save State Street from itself that’s now seized City Hall. It was wall-to-wall sardines at last week’s City Council meeting that turned out to be a genuinely constructive vent fest, punctuated, I must say, by some singularly odd and wonderful moments. There’s been considerable after-the-fact eyeball rolling that the council’s immediate reaction was to pass a resolution to hire a consultant. That the council also voted to create a special ad hoc subcommittee task force has induced even more. To be fair, this is what city councils do. To be fairer still, the proposal to hire a consultant was on the top of just about every list of nonnegotiable demands submitted.
For starters, there was Dick Berti’s Oscar-worthy soliloquy comparing downtown Santa Barbara to a beautiful woman who can’t get any dates because she’s too high-maintenance and costs too much. When that got laughs, Berti took it up a notch, comparing Santa Barbara to the psychotic, rabbit-killing, adultery-inducing femme fatale played by Glenn Close in the movie Fatal Attraction. Berti — known affectionately by friends as “The Bird” — has been syndicating downtown commercial real estate partnerships since before Methuselah and probably owns, manages, or controls in some fashion 59.62 percent of all leasable square footage. By any measure, he’s been screamingly successful. But among friends and investors, tenants and critics, Berti is famous for a gloomy, glowering pessimism that in even limited exposures can require quarantine. To see him go comedic was a revelation and refreshing. Sadly, it didn’t last. “I don’t want to live here anymore,” Berti then lamented. “If I could, I’d move,” adding, “I’m just going to die. It’s too hard.” I was confused. I didn’t know whether to give Berti a hug or clap. So I clapped. So too did everyone else. This response, I think, encouraged Dick to go back for an encore, this time accompanied by his buddy Jim Knell of SIMA Corporation, who probably owns, manages or otherwise controls the other 40.38 percent of all leasable space. When Knell smiles, his tenants reflexively call their lawyers. Knell was smiling as he told the council that City Hall needs to make downtown look nice and feel safe, but otherwise they should get the hell out of his way.
Berti then offered to spend $100,000 of his own money to move the people congregating in front of the New Faulding Hotel — some call it the “New Fall Down” — to an empty plot of land located somewhere by the county jail. Knell intimated in some fashion that he might be good for $100,000, as well. Since then, I have been told, Berti has modified that proposal — at a University Club confab between a gaggle of owners, Mayor Cathy Murillo, and Councilmember Randy Rowse — to shut down the New Faulding as a single-room-hotel flophouse and relocate those occupants to points elsewhere.
A few obvious reactions: First, $100,000 may be a grand gesture, but it’s not enough to move anybody anywhere. Second, the jail happens to be located in a jurisdiction controlled by the county supervisors — not City Hall — and they, I’m just guessing, might have adverse feelings about such a relocation. Last — and most important — there is a desperate need for the 81 low-rent bedrooms the New Faulding provides. Over the last 30 or so years, downtown has lost hundreds of low-rent hotel rooms: The Virginian, the Californian, and the Carrillo come to mind.
I am told Berti is an investor with Jason Jaeger in the hotel right across Haley Street from the Faulding. Jaeger has been pitching a fit about the unwashed and the unscrubbed. I get it. Who wants loud and unruly street drunks interfering with prospective customers at your new wine bar? But at last week’s meeting, Jaeger unveiled a proposal of his own that has me still gasping. Jaeger asked City Hall to give property owners special easements to the sidewalk and public spaces adjoining their holdings so they could hire private security to enforce the law. Just what we need: rent-a-cop easements giving private dicks, no doubt underpaid and underqualified, the legal authority to police our public spaces. If I weren’t convinced this idea was DOA, I’d be inclined to call the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the International Criminal Court.
Let me suggest a constructive alternative.
If Berti and Knell have $100,000 bills burning holes in their respective pockets, perhaps they could be induced to underwrite a mental-health outreach effort known in the lingo as “co-response teams.” That’s where you pair up a street cop with a mental-health outreach worker and have them hit the streets. It’s the new, hot, sexy thing, and if it’s half as effective as its champions claim, it would be money well spent. Police Chief Lori Luhnow’s right-hand man, Anthony Wagner, has been champing at the bit trying to get one of these started. An irrepressible cowlick of a man, Wagner is given to wearing brightly colored striped socks and big, brown wingtips; he also bursts with big ideas and doesn’t seem to care whose feathers he ruffles. Wagner tried to put the squeeze on Cottage Hospital a while back at a meeting attended by Luhnow herself and former city fire chief Pat McElroy. Cottage, which doesn’t cotton to being squeezed, pointedly wondered just where the co-response teams would send all the mentally ill people they found. Given Santa Barbara’s criminal lack of mental-health infrastructure, that is, of course, the $64 million question.
Maybe that $200,000 would go a long way toward finding an answer. Even better, it might give Dick Berti something to smile about.