For more than 30 years now, Santa Barbarans have been bickering among themselves about whether cars should be taken off State Street and downtown’s main drag be converted into a pedestrian promenade. Now, in a bid to give the city’s economy a desperately needed shot in the arm, what’s long been heralded — and derided — as a pipe dream could finally come to pass.
And maybe as soon as this Memorial Day weekend.
Sparking the absolutely unprecedented speed with which City Hall is now moving is the unprecedented global pandemic that’s left a path of more than 80,000 dead across the United States and a trail of economic ruin 3,000 miles wide. Although the South Coast has thus far escaped the horrific body counts that have ravaged such places as New York City, City Hall finds itself about $33 million in the hole with most businesses — shut down under Governor Gavin Newsom’s orders for two months now — dying on the vine. “Businesses are slowly failing before our eyes, and we don’t even know it,” declared Jason Harris, the city’s new — and first-ever — economic development czar. Harris assumed the post just as the pandemic struck, having left a similar position with the City of Santa Monica, famous for, among other things, its car-free Third Street Promenade.
For Harris, this is clearly his baptism by fire. Working as point person for a special COVID-response task force put together by Mayor Cathy Murillo, he is proposing a temporary, quick-fix, stop-gap solution for businesses that Newsom eventually allows to open by allowing them access to public spaces, i.e., streets, sidewalks, parking lots. This way, they will have enough square footage to remain economically viable while also observing the physical distancing requirements imposed by public health officials in response to the COVID virus. It will also create a sense of street life that might draw residents and visitors alike. Or at least that’s the theory.
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By getting cars off State Street (or even parts of it), Harris said merchants and restaurants can avail themselves to sidewalk space and parking-lot space that in less urgent times would have been strictly off-limits under Santa Barbara’s tightly regulated status quo. As usual, the devil’s in the details, but in this case, there are no details yet. More a bare-bones outline. And also, as usual, there were serious questions about the process. Anna Marie Gott, City Hall’s most outspokenly critical bird dog, expressed outrage at the lack of transparency, complaining she only got the Task Force reports the night before this Tuesday’s council meeting. She vehemently objected to the idea that on-site liquor permits would somehow be allowed to extend to the great out-of-doors, especially if that brought with it a whiff of tobacco smoke.
Gott was not alone. Patricia Owen, a 58-year resident, objected that State Street could be transformed so completely and swiftly after the decades of painstaking care spent transforming it from the four-lane anytown it was when she first moved here. Drawing tourists from Los Angeles, she cautioned, was hardly a great idea for economic salvation given the violence inflicted there by the COVID virus. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, she noted, had just extended the mandatory shelter-in-place orders there for another three months. David Landecker, a former councilmember but now the interim executive for the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition, said he liked the general idea of a pedestrianized State Street but worried about a hasty execution. “I want to see it work,” he said, “not just happen.”
The reaction among the councilmembers was likewise mixed. Councilmember Kristen Sneddon expressed concern that the city’s economic development schemes might find themselves at cross-purposes with the imperatives of public-health restrictions. None of these plans, she was told, could get off the drawing boards unless (and until) Newsom clears Santa Barbara County for accelerated economic activity under his controversial four-tiered process for normalization. And it’s unclear Santa Barbara County will ever meet his public-health performance thresholds so long as the off-the-charts infection rates reported at Lompoc prison are included as part of the county’s performance metrics.
Mayor Murillo’s Task Force had signed a letter — on the County of Santa Barbara’s behalf — arguing that Lompoc prison, a federal facility over which local authorities have no jurisdiction, should not be included in the county’s infection totals. Sneddon expressed alarm that she had not been given a chance to comment on that letter before it was submitted. She worried that City Hall was reacting in the moment and not planning enough. “This is our Pearl Chase moment,” she declared, exhuming the rhetorical vapors of Santa Barbara’s civic patron saint credited for spearheading downtown’s Spanish revivalism in the rubble of Santa Barbara’s 1925 earthquake. “This is when we go from where we were to what we want to become.”
Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez wondered just who in City Hall would be issuing all the emergency permits that would bypass the city’s famed regulatory hurdles. Would it be City Administrator Paul Casey, she asked. Casey, who has been criticized for not being forceful enough as a leader, bristled at the notion he would be calling all the shots or that the city’s much-fought-over public process would be trampled underfoot. Casey stressed that he would be looking to the council for guidance and leadership. The public would still have an opportunity to weigh in.
“But can it be the two-year Santa Barbara process?” he asked. “No. We don’t have the time. I want to caution you to not be too slow. This is the worst disaster we’ve seen in 100 years.”
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