Farmers fought long and valiantly Tuesday night against the city’s proposal to displace their Saturday morning market at the Cota Street Commuter Lot with a new police station. The forced relocation of their anchor event, a steady stream of them argued late into the evening, would threaten more than 100 small family businesses and the entire Santa Barbara Farmers Market system. They said their survival was inextricably linked to the site, size, and configuration of the Cota Lot, their home for the past 35 years. Please let us remain, they implored the council. “Peas Lettuce Romaine,” read their bright green T-shirts.
But the growers were waging an uphill, and ultimately losing, battle, because for as long as they’ve plied their wares at the Cota site, the City of Santa Barbara has desperately needed a new police station. Study after study, chief after chief, and mayor after mayor have pushed to replace the department’s outdated and seismically unsafe Figueroa Street headquarters. Now armed with Measure C funds and staff reports explaining why the Cota lot makes the most fiscal and logistical sense, the current council said it’s finally time to pull the trigger.
The 4-2 vote was a close one, however, and pained even those members of the council in favor of the project. Among the councilmembers, Meagan Harmon, Oscar Gutierrez, and Eric Friedman, voted for, as did Mayor Cathy Murillo; Jason Dominguez and Kristen Sneddon voted against. Councilmember Randy Rowse was recused. (Technically, the vote was to begin an intensive environmental review of the Cota site; barring any major unforeseen discoveries or changes of heart, the location will be affirmed by the council once the review is complete in the coming months.)
Councilmember Eric Friedman said choosing between the unstoppable force of a new police station and the immovable object of the farmers market was the toughest decision he’s faced on the dais. “I understand the gravity of what’s before us today,” he said. Over the last six months, Friedman said, he met with individual farmers and the market board, and he took their concerns seriously. Sam Edelman, the market’s general manager, agreed his conversations with the city were “constructive, lively, and honest,” but he wished they’d started much earlier in the decision-making process.
Friedman also spoke with police representatives and reviewed memos from two and three decades ago that begged for a better, safer, and more modern home for law enforcement. Friedman admitted he’s not comfortable with displacing the Saturday morning market. “But we’re not up here to be comfortable,” he said. “We’re here to make difficult decisions.” No site for the new station will be perfect, Friedman went on ― noting the alternatives studied by staff, including Earl Warren Showgrounds, the Louise Lowry Davis Center, the empty Sears space at La Cumbre Plaza, and 16 others ― but he’s been convinced Cota is the best option. “There comes a time after 30-plus years when it’s necessary to take action,” he said. Just as necessary, he said, is for the city to work hand-in-hand with the farmers to find them a suitable alternative.
Friedman wanted a unanimous vote from the council to show support for both the farmers and the police. He didn’t get it. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon said she was convinced by the farmers’ Tuesday testimonies, delivered with passion and a few tears, that they shouldn’t be made to move. She was especially concerned, she said, by examples given of markets in Goleta, Ventura, and Los Angeles that had relocated and never recovered their sales.
Moreover, the top alternative site the city is suggesting for the market ― De la Guerra Plaza ― has been deemed a “logistical nightmare” by the farmers, Sneddon noted. That’s a serious problem. Edelman affirmed all 12 potential sites the farmers have looked at would be “major downgrades.”
For Councilmember Meagan Harmon, whose district covers much of downtown, it boiled down to finances. “My responsibility as a public official is to be a careful steward of public taxpayer dollars,” she explained. Station construction alone is expected to cost $70 million-$100 million, and Harmon said she couldn’t justify spending tens of millions more to buy a new piece of private property or remediate one with a lot of obstacles. “With that said, I feel very strongly that we have a responsibility to work with farmers,” she said. “I want to be there for you.”
City staff is scheduled to come back to the council with plans for a subcommittee to help the farmers find a new home. “We will do the utmost to assist them in this move,” promised project manager Brad Hess. Edelman said he hopes that comes in the form of concrete solutions, not just lip service. “It’s not enough for the city to simply say how much they value the market,” he insisted. “Other communities invest in marketing and infrastructure to ensure their markets’ viability.” Hess estimated it would be two years before construction begins at Cota and the farmers have to uproot.