In hindsight, some amount of freak-out was inevitable. It was probably necessary. For the time being, however, it appears Santa Barbara City Hall has gotten the message loud and clear: Pay attention to the needs of the Farmers Market. But it’s also pretty clear that the Saturday Farmers Market’s days at its current location—the Cota Street commuter parking lot—are seriously numbered.
That parking lot has just been identified by City Hall as one of only two viable sites for what most everyone agrees is a desperately needed new police station. Of those two locations, the Cota Street lot is the only site that won’t require a vote of the people for development to take place. That qualifies the Cota Street lot as the prime candidate, if not the only one. Last Thursday, members of the city’s Planning Commission decreed the Cota Street site as the preferable location for the new police station. Their recommendation was advisory only. That decision belongs instead to the City Council, which is expected to decide the matter this coming January.
Noey Turk, president of the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers Market board of directors, said she was first notified big changes were looming just two days before the Farmers Market board meeting on October 27. “It was very sudden,” said Turk, who has been selling vegetables and plants at the Farmers Market for 26 years. “There’s just no way for that not to be sudden.”
Many farmers, Turk said, are still reeling from financial losses sustained because of last year’s Thomas Fire, not to mention the drought and labor shortages. A move, even under the best of circumstances, adds yet another element of financial uncertainty. Many farmers—123 sell their wares at the Saturday market or any of the five satellite markets subsidized by the Saturday event—questioned why they hadn’t been part of the conversation or even known that it was taking place. Why hadn’t they been invited to participate in so momentous a decision? Even the three members of the City Council making up the site-selection advisory committee—Jason Dominguez, Kristen Sneddon, and Randy Rowse—reported that the vetting of all the possible locations had already been completed by the time they were brought into the picture.
The suddenness of it all made many farmers feel profoundly unappreciated. Didn’t City Hall realize Santa Barbara had one of the best farmers’ markets in the state? Didn’t they understand the Saturday market drew 5,000 customers downtown? At a time when State Street is struggling, that should count for something. The phone lines at City Hall lit up. Social media exploded. Rumors flew, including one that claimed the market had been given eviction papers. That is decidedly not true.
Turk said communications with City Hall have improved considerably since then. “They’re on our side. They want us to succeed. They’re committed to finding us a new location,” she said. Councilmember Sneddon, for example, has reached out to Turk, suggesting the move—if ultimately necessary—might offer an opportunity to really upgrade the market, adding such amenities as water, electricity, and restrooms, for example. City planning guru Rob Dayton gushed about how important the market is to the community: “Santa Barbara may not be a church community, but the Farmers Market is ‘The Church.’ It’s where people go every Saturday—religiously. This is really important.”
Turk expressed cautious optimism about the change of tone. “As sincere as everyone is, I don’t think they really understand yet how complicated it actually is to get up and just move,” she said. “For every parking space we lose, for example, we lose three customers.” If people have to walk a longer way to a new location, they’ll buy fewer vegetables. Such details, she said, matter. Many of the suggestions she’s heard are more picturesque than practical.
Right now, there’s lots of talk about alternative sites: Parking Lot 11—by Anacapa and Haley Street—is even bigger than the Cota lot and located just a block away. Others like the parking lot at the Louise Lowry Davis Center, which is bigger still. That’s ironic given that the Davis Center and attendant lawn bowling park is the only viable alternative to the Cota Street lot that Hess found of the nine sites he explored.
No one—certainly not Turk—is questioning the need for a new police station. The current station house was built in 1959 and designed for 85 full-time employees. The police department now employs 211. The current building is seismically questionable and offers only four toilets for the sworn female police officers. Police operations are currently spread throughout four locations. For such a hierarchical, chain-of-command department, that poses challenges. Aside from structural issues, the new station house is slated to become a major architectural statement, rendered with all the Spanish Colonial–style trappings.
Brad Hess, the new police station’s project manager since April, last worked on a job for Sansum, for which he secured all the necessary entitlements to build the new Cancer Center. Of the nine sites he examined, all but one were owned by the city already. (He made a stab at property owned by the News-Press in De la Guerra Plaza but did not receive a call back.) All were located downtown. (The Sears property at La Cumbre Plaza, for example, was deemed too far away. Earl Warren Showgrounds was similarly challenged and owned by the state of California.) Many were rejected because they were located in the flood plain. A police station, he acknowledged, could be built in a flood plain by elevating the structure. “But if we got hit by heavy rains, it would be a moat.” State law, he said, required access to and from.
Hess said any suggested new locations would have to be vetted first by the Farmers Market board. “I want to stress this is not an either/or scenario,” he said. “It’s not the police station or the Farmers Market.” City Hall, Hess noted, had invested 35 years into the Farmers Market and was not about to walk away from that investment now. Hess grew up in Santa Barbara, and his parents are devoted Farmers Market customers. “They’d kill me if I did anything to hurt this,” he said.